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St. Joseph Altars - Ethnic Traditions in New Orleans

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St. Joseph Altars - Ethnic Traditions in New Orleans

New Orleans St. Joseph Altar

Photo © N. A. Nungesser
St. Joseph Day Altars are another ethnic tradition in New Orleans that seems to grown each year with more public altars and larger displays.

Italian immigrants from Sicily brought the tradition to New Orleans from their homeland. According to a legend, a drought and famine during the Middle Ages caused much suffering in Sicily. People prayed to St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, and promised to thank him with food altars on his feast day, March 19, and give away the food to all.

Supposedly on midnight of March 19, it started to rain and broke the Sicilian drought. Many now create altars to thank St. Joseph for their personal prayers as well.

Part of the tradition requires that no money be spent on the altar, so its creators must beg for all items. There is also to be no personal profit in the altar, although items, including food, were for sale next to at least one altar this year to benefit a church.

St. Joseph altars were reportedly mostly found in private homes in the past. Some private home altars, past and present, included public open houses. Nowadays, the tradition has gone very public and altars are found in numerous Catholic Churches, Catholic school gyms, the local Italian heritage museum and even unexpected venues like Rock n Bowl.

Even if you have never been to a St. Joseph Day Altar, if you have lived in New Orleans long enough, someone has probably given you a "lucky bean". I wonder how many locals carry a lucky bean in their purse or wallet.

These fava beans are always part of the altars and are given out freely to all visitors. Originally food for animals, the fava bean became a food staple during a famine when all other crops failed.

Baked goods are highlights of the altars. Decorative but edible breads, including cuccidatti bread with figs, are made in a variety of shapes and symbols such as a heart, fish, cross, and dove. A hard boiled egg is baked into some of the breads.

The homemade Italian cookies are favorites of many visitors. They usually include a variety of fig cakes and biscotti.

Just about every item, every shape, and even some spices and ingredients, have at least one symbolic meaning.

The altars always included an abundance of fresh vegetables and fruits. One superstition holds that stealing a lemon from the altar, and leaving money for the poor in its place, brings either good luck and/or marriage.

There is always fish and wine, symbolizing miracles, on the altars, but never any meat. Some of the altars memorialize deceased loved ones with candles, photos, cakes and other items. Devout visitors may place "petitions" or prayer notes to St. Joseph on the altar during their visit.

After a display of one or more days, generally the St. Joseph altars are "broken" and the non-perishables not given to visitors are donated to charity.

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