Today, March 19, is Saint Joseph’s Day, or the Feast of St Joseph. It is celebrated by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches worldwide. The terms feast and festival are often used interchangeably and often refer to a religious holiday.
What is the history of the holiday and of Joseph himself?
Why don’t we hear more about St Joseph’s Day?
I cannot think of St Joseph’s Day without recalling the skits from the ’70s Saturday Night Live by comedian and show writer Don Novello as the (fictitious) Father Guido Sarducci, papal legate and gossip columnist for The Vatican Enquirer. He talked about St Patrick as compared to St Joseph:
“You see, [St Patrick] was a good-a saint. But he wasn’t a great-a saint. Like-a Saint Joseph, the patron saint of Italy. He’s a great-a saint and not just a good-a saint. Saint Joseph’s named day is-a coming up-March 19th. But-a, there won’t-a be no parades, no parties, not even a song for Saint-a Joseph.
“And-a the reason is-a because of-a Saint Patrick. You know, it’s just like having a birthday two days after Christmas-you just don’t get-a the same attention. And it just-a breaks my heart that he was a great-a saint, and this good, mediocre saint gets all-a the glory…
“But-a you know, he did-a invent-a Saint-a Joseph’s Aspirins. Think of all-a the lives he’s-a saved with-a those tiny little aspirins. People take-a the Saint-a Joseph’s Aspirins to-a prevent-a the heart attack.”
While St Joseph’s Day is It is not a holy day of obligation (to attend mass) for Catholics in the United States, it is a big deal in Europe. It is celebrated as Father’s Day in Spain, Portugal, and especially Italy.
History of St Joseph’s Day
While the celebration of Joseph’s life goes back to the 10th century, it was officially established in Rome in 1479, and later Pope Pius V extended it to the whole church in 1570.
Pope Pius IX subsequently declared Joseph to be both the patron and the protector of the Catholic Church. The current Pope Francis has declared this year to be the “Year of St Joseph.”
St Joseph and Sicily
During the Middle Ages, there was a severe drought in Sicily. Crops were failing, and families were starving. Sicilians prayed to San Giuseppe (Joseph) to help them by sending rain. They promised a feast in his name if he could answer their prayers. The rain came. Crops were planted, preventing a widespread famine in Sicily, and the people kept their word. Now every year, a table is prepared with gifts, both of food and sentiment, in thanks to St Joseph. It is widely believed that this is the reason the celebration is held in March.
Foods containing breadcrumbs, or the “poor man’s parmigiano” are enjoyed. Breadcrumbs are eaten to resemble the sawdust left behind after a day’s work in Joseph’s carpenter’s shop. Lemons, like fava beans, are said to bring good luck. The fava bean was the crop that saved the population from starvation and is a traditional part of St Joseph’s Day altars and traditions. For dessert, the fried pastry zeppole, cannoli, and fig cookies are presented.
One of the primary landing places for Sicilian immigrants, in addition to New York, where my Sicilian grandparents settled, was southern Louisiana. At one point, the French Quarter of New Orleans was known as “Little Palermo.” Celebrations occur, even to this day, with traditional foods and festivities.
History of St Joseph
What we know about Joseph is as memorable as it is brief. We learn about him from the nativity story in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
The carpenter Joseph was betrothed to Mary, and before they consummated their relationship in marriage, she was found to be pregnant. As a “just man,” he did not want to shame her with a public divorce. An angel appeared to him in a dream instructing him to marry Mary as her pregnancy was “from the Holy Spirit.”
A decree for a census came out from the Roman Emperor Augustus that required all subjects of the Empire to return to their ancestral homes. He took Mary to Bethlehem, and Jesus was born there, visited first by local shepherds, then later by the Wise Men. When Herod the Great sought to kill this newborn “King of the Jews,” Joseph was warned by an angel in a dream to take Mary and the child to Egypt.
After the family returned to Nazareth in northern Israel, the last mention of Joseph in Jesus’ life is when the family went to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover when Jesus was 12. Historians have concluded that Joseph died sometime between this event and the opening of Jesus’ public ministry when he was around 30.
What about the pictures of St Joseph as an old man?
There is nothing supporting this from the Scriptures. According to Jewish customs at the time, it’s more likely Joseph and Mary were about the same age: mid-teens or early 20s.
So why was this idea popularized in art and tradition? There had been a 2nd-century Greek document titled the Protoevangelium of James, meaning the first “gospel” of the apostle James. It was one of several “infancy gospels” circulating during the first few centuries AD that is considered pseudepigraphical writing. Pseudepigrapha means a falsely attributed writings where the name of a past saint is attached to a work to lend it authority, but not written near the life of Jesus.
The “Protoevangelium of James” depicted Joseph as an old widower with adult children from a previous marriage. It suggested that Jesus’ siblings, described in Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55–56, were from Joseph’s previous marriage. But there’s no historical basis to the claims in this document, and the fact that it was written centuries after the time of Christ makes it suspect. However, it was popular throughout the Middle Ages.
So what should you do on St Joseph’s Day? As my Sicilian ancestors did:
“Have some spaghetti and cannoli!”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
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