Posted March 19, 2004
See Reference to St. Joseph’s Day March 19
Book: Holiday Symbols and Customs
Edited by: Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Detroit, MI, pp.895
Description of Contents:
A guide to the legend and lore behind traditions, rituals, foods, games, animals, and other symbols and activities associated with holidays and holy days, feasts and fasts, and other celebrations, covering calendar, ethnic, religious, historic, folkloric, national, promotional, sporting, and ancient events, as observed in the United States and around the world.
Excerpts from Book:
St. Joseph’s Day
Dia de San Guiseppe, Fallas
Type of Holiday: Religious
Date of Observation: March 19 in the West; July 29 in the East
Where Celebrated: Italy, Sicily, Spain, United States and by Christians all over the world.
Symbols and Customs: Breads, Fruits, and Grains; Fish; Flowering Rod
Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary and foster-father of Jesus, has been honored as a saint since the earliest days of the Christian Church. But very little is known about his life, or even the exact date of his death, which is believed to have occurred when Jesus Christ was 18.
St. Joseph’s Day is widely celebrated in Italy as a day of feasting and sharing with the poor, of whom he is the patron saint. Each village prepares a “table of St. Joseph” by contributing money, candles, flowers, and food. Then they invite three guest of honor — representing Mary, Joseph and Jesus — to join in their feast, as well as others representing the 12 Apostles. They also invite the orphans, widows, beggars and poor people of the village to eat with them. The food is blessed by the village priest and by the child chosen to represent Jesus; then it is passed from one person to the next. Dia de San Guiseppe, as the day is known, is celebrated by Italians in the United States and in other countries as well.
In Valencia, Spain, it is a week-long festival (March 12-19) called Fallas de San Jose (Bonfires of St. Joseph). Its roots can be found in medieval times, when the carpenters’ guild (of whom Joseph was the patron saint) made a huge bonfire on St. Joseph’s Eve out of the wood shaving that had accumulated over the winter. This was considered the end of the winter and the last night on which candles and lamps wold have to be lighted. In fact, the carpenters often burned the parot, or wooden candelabrum, in front of their shops.
In Valencia nowadays the parots have become fallas, or huge floats of intricate scenes made f wood and papier-mache, satirizing everything from the high cost of living to political personalities. On St. Joseph’s Eve, March 18, th fallas parade through the streets. At midnight on March 19, the celebration ends with a spectacular ceremony known as the crema, when all the fallas are set on fire.
Among Sicilian Catholics living in the United States, St. Joseph’s Day is a major event — the equivalent of St. Patrick’s Day among the Irish-Americans. This is particularly true in New Orleans, Milwaukee, and other cities where there are large Sicilian populations. In Southern California, a custom similar to the Hispanic Posadas takes place on St. Joseph’s Day: Mary’s and Joseph’s search for the shelter is reenacted by children, who go from house to house requesting lodging for the night. When they reach the third house, they are greeted by a large St. Joseph’s Altar and an elaborate meal.
Symbols and Customs
Breads, Fruits, and Grains
Cards exchanged by Roman Catholics on St. Joseph’s Day often show specially baked breads, fruits, and grains along with images of the saint. They are a symbol of fertility and abundance, although now the day is more of an ethnic festival than a celebration of spring.
The tables or altars set up in Sicilian homes on St. Joseph’s Day are often used to display the special foods associated with the holiday. Fish is a favorite choice, probably because this holy day falls during Lent, when meat is forbidden. But it may also have something to do with fish as a fertility symbol and a symbol of Christianity. The fish often stands for Christ in Christian art and literature because the five Greek letters forming the word “fish” are the initial letters of the five words, “Jesus Christ God’s Son Savior.” The fish is also a symbol of baptism: just as the fish cannot live out of the water, the true Christian cannot live except through the waters of baptism.
Mary didn’t choose Joseph to be her husband. According to legend, the priest Zacharius was told by an angel to gather together all the widowers, instructing them to bring their rods (or staffs) with them. Joseph appeared with the rest, and their rods were placed in the temple overnight in the hope that God would provide a sign to indicate which of them he favored. The next morning, it was discovered that Joseph’s rod had burst into flower, and a white dove flew out of it. This was taken to be a clear sign of God’s intentions for him. In paintings of the subject, the rejected suitors are often shown breaking their rods with expressions of envy and disgust. Joseph’s rod is usually shown in the form of a stalk of lilies — the lily being a symbol of purity and the flower most often associated with the Virgin Mary.