Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Everyday Grace:
Irish or Italian? Take your pick

by Mary Cronk Farrell

(From the March 22, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Mary Cronk Farrell St. Patrick captures most of the attention this time of year, but if you don’t like cabbage and corned beef, you might want to commemorate St. Joseph’s Day next year. Coming just two days after the Irish festivities, this Italian feast is famous for tables overflowing with bread, vegetables, pasta, and cream puffs.

Giuseppe (Joseph), the foster father of Jesus, is Sicily’s most beloved saint. Devotions to San Giuseppe traveled to America with Italian immigrants and remain important in many American families. One unique custom, the St. Joseph’s Table, sent me scrambling up my family tree looking for Italian blood. But I learned the St. Joseph’s Table epitomizes hospitality. Everyone is welcome.

The most popular legend explaining its origin begins in the Middle Ages, in a small Sicilian village. After several seasons of drought and poor crops, the villagers began to weaken and die from hunger. They prayed for rain, and asked St. Joseph to intercede for them. The peasants promised that if God would answer their prayers, they would throw a huge feast for everyone, especially the poor.

The rain came. Farmers planted crops and after the abundant harvest the village turned out for a grand meal. Villagers invited orphans and beggars to eat first. All had their fill, yet food was left for the poor to take home.

Over generations, preparing and offering a feast around the time of St. Joseph’s Day (March 19) grew into a complex tradition. Families began to construct elaborate altars in stair-step fashion, covered with fine cloth, candles, and lilies, and laden with food. A statue or painting of St. Joseph is placed at the pinnacle. The most important part of the altar after the image of the saint is bread.

Bakers form the breads into symbols like the cross, Joseph’s cane, fish, crowns, braids and baskets. The altar is loaded with food. Citrus fruits, grapes, olives and figs represent the orchards and vineyards in Sicily. Pasta Milanese is served with bread crumbs or mudica, symbolizing the sawdust of St. Joseph’s carpenter shop. Typical fare includes artichokes, eggplant, fresh fennel stalks, cauliflower, broccoli, and spinach frittatas, plus a variety of fish. Dishes are meatless because of the Lenten season. Plenty of cakes, cookies, cream puffs and pastries complete the banquet.

“Doing” or “giving” a St. Joseph’s Table became a way of both requesting favors and showing gratitude. The custom took on specific meanings; for instance, it became very common during World War II and the Vietnam War, with mothers giving Tables for the safe return of their sons.

In Italian neighborhoods today, churches, restaurants and clubs as well as families give St. Joseph’s Tables as a way to build community, or to provide food or money to the poor. Traditionally, a Table is given by the grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts, and nieces. The work of preparing the Table is a sacred gift of hospitality promised by each woman who participates.

Another aspect of the festivities which is fun for families is a dramatization of the Holy Family looking for shelter. Children dress up and play the parts of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. They come knocking three times at the door of the home where the Table is prepared.

The first two knocks are answered: “No, there is no shelter here.”

At the third knock, they are asked, “Who is it?”

The reply: “I am St. Joseph. I seek shelter for Mary and Jesus.”

Most of us are not looking for another complicated meal to cook or a long stream of hungry guests. But I doubt Sicilians would take offense at simplifying this old custom to honor St. Joseph.

Prepare an easy meal of spring greens, spaghetti, bread and cream puffs (Yes, even kids can make cream puffs. Visit my website for a recipe.) Invite a few people from the margins of life and offer a prayer. Celebrate the abundance in our lives. God provides. We can be sure of that, especially with St. Joseph on our side.

© 2007, Mary Cronk Farrell

(Mary Cronk Farrell is a Spokane free-lance and children’s writer. Her latest book, Celebrating Faith: Year-Round Activities for Catholic Families, has been published by St. Anthony Messenger Press. Contact her at

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