St. Joseph's Day in New Orleans
An excerpt from Gumbo Ya Ya
“I HAVE THREE ORPHANS AT MY ALTAR”— MRS. Messina sat heavily in a chair, her knees spread wide apart, and mopped at her flushed face with a damp ball of a handkerchief. From her perspiring state and the tantalizing aroma drifting from the rear of the house it was simple to deduce she had just finished preparing the food for the altar at the opposite end of the room. Steam still curled upward from a white bowl of dark green artichokes. “One of my kids is only half of an orphan,” she explained. “His pa's still living, but he don't have no steady work, so he's worse off than a whole orphan!”
Mrs. Messina waved a thick red hand in the air, slapped a fat knee resoundingly. ' You like my altar, eh? I have five hundred different kinds of food. Besides the three sorts of Saint Joseph's bread, I have stuffed artichokes, stuffed crabs, stuffed peppers, stuffed celery, stuffed eggs and stuffed tomatoes. I have lobsters, red snapper fish, shrimps, crayfish, spaghettis, macaronis, spinach, peanuts, layer cakes, pies, pineapples...' Mrs. Messina took a breath. 'My God! I have everything! This is the fifth year I make an altar. Five years ago my little girl she get sick and when she get well she can't talk. My baby is deaf and dumb. I almost go crazy. She is my life! My God, I lose my mind!'
Mrs. Messina blew her nose. 'We had a little market then, and one day an old lady come in begging for her Saint Joseph's altar. I give her a dollar and I told her if she's come back I'd give her a basket of fruit. I tell you the truth. I will always be glad that old woman come to see me I was so crazy. My baby was too little to understand why she can't talk. When I take her out she tear off my hat and pull at my clothes to show me something. She stomp her feet and her face get so red she almost bust. All the time I come home a wreck. "Well, like two, three days before Saint Joseph's Day that old lady come running into my place all excited like, and she say: 'Mrs. Messina, I had a vision. I seen Saint Joseph with my own two eyes. He say I must go get that little girl who can't talk and make her the Virgin at my altar.'"
'I tell you my kid looked beautiful! I dressed her up all in white with a wreath in her hair. And right after that year I started my altars, because next day Saint Joseph come to me. He say, "Mrs. Messina, why don't you have an altar for me, yourself?" I say, "Saint Joseph, please give my kid back her speech, or you take her yourself." See how crazy I was? But right away then she starts to get better. But, my God, what I go through for that kid! Without Saint Joseph I couldn't stand it. This might be my last altar. I got to think about it. If I make another vow, then I'll have to keep on making 'em.”
Mrs. Messina's altar was a large one. A big statue of Saint Joseph dominated a central group of plaster saints who wore gaudily painted robes of red, blue and gold. There were paper flowers of pink and blue, scarlet and orange, and vases and bowls filled with real Easter lilies, carnations and roses. Trailing bridal wreath wound about the top, from which were suspended silver bells and ornaments obviously borrowed from last year's Christmas Tree. Three tiers and a long table held platters of food of every kind and description. Tall lighted candles flickered toward the ceiling, for it was nearly time for the noon hour ' Feast of the Saints.' When the priest arrived, five people took seats at a small cable. In the place of honor facing the altar was an elderly man in a loose brown robe, wearing a pasteboard crown and carrying a long stick with a snowy lily attached to the end of it. He, it was whispered, was the good Saint Joseph himself. And the girl opposite him, wearing the light blue veil over her dark hair, was the Virgin Mary. Three children grouped about them: a boy wearing a halo fashioned of pasteboard and a raincoat and a girl in a white cambric dress and veil, and another in ord nary clothes. These three were Mrs. Messina's two and one half orphans.
The priest took a position behind ' Saint Joseph/ chanted some prayers in Latin and sprinkled water over the altar. Then he turned and said: 'Now you are all blessed! Go ahead and eat.' And he left the room.
Then 'Saint Joseph' knelt before the altar and in a moment every person in the room was on his knees. The prayers over, a woman stepped forward, gathered a bouquet of red carnations from the altar and placed it in the arms of the 'Virgin Mary.'
Now the news spread that a procession would take place to a near-by church, where a petition would be made that Mrs. Messina's eldest daughter, who was pregnant, might have an easy delivery.
'Saint Joseph' in the lead, everybody marched three blocks to the church and returned, carefully retracing the same route on the way back to the house that they had used upon leaving. To have varied this in even a small degree would certainly have brought bad luck. Perhaps Mrs. Messina's eldest daughter might not receive the full benefits of the petition just made.
Again seated at the table, in precisely the same order as before, the five were served from the altar, each receiving a tiny portion of everything. Only after they had finished eating could the family and neighbors eat, and the lucky beans, bits of Saint Joseph's bread and bay leaves be distributed. Outside the house people were gathering, most of them lean and poorly clad. Whatever was left would be given these poor. Such is the custom on Saint Joseph's Day.
Originating in Sicily, and long a day for feasting and dancing among Italians, Saint Joseph's Day is widely celebrated among the Italians in New Orleans and near-by towns. The date, March 19, is considered a day's respite from the fasting and spiritual sackcloth and ashes of the Lenten season, and is sometimes known as Mi-Careme (Mid-Lent).
Legend holds that in the Middle Ages a group of Italians were exiled from their country and set adrift on the sea in a small boat. In despair they prayed to Saint Joseph for guidance and protection, promising to honor him each year if their lives were spared. Cast upon the shore of an uninhabited island, they immediately erected an altar of branches and palmetto leaves and decorated it with wisteria, wild red lilies and other flowers. But even before that Saint Joseph had received some measure of recognition. In the fourth century, Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, erected a basilica at Bethlehem in honor of Saint Joseph. The Coptic Church included the feast of Saint Joseph, the Carpenter, in its church calendar, the date being set at July 2.0, and in most of the early churches Joseph was honored along with Saint Simeon, Saint Anna and other saints associated with the birth and infancy of Jesus. The first church dedicated to Joseph was erected in Bologna in 112.9, his feast day being celebrated shortly before Easter at that period. However, church leaders of the fourteenth century, including Saint Gertrude, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bridget of Sweden, declared he had never received his rightful place and insisted that he be accorded more fitting honors. It was only then that this festival was officially inserted in the Franciscan calendar, and under the papal rule of Sixtus IV, the date was set at March 19. In 172.6 Pope Benedict XIII placed Joseph's name in the Litany of Saints, and in 1870 Pius IX solemnly declared him the patron saint of the Roman Catholic Church. But New Orleans Italians have never required any urging to honor Saint Joseph. The morning of March 19 finds Catholic churches filled to overflowing, at noon the ceremonies at the home altars are held with ever-increasing enthusiasm, and the night is celebrated with dances and parties all over the city.
Interesting is the companion tradition of the swallows of San Juan Capistrano at the California mission. The New Orleans Item reported the annual return of the swallows on March 19. 1940, as follows :
The swallows of San Juan kept their age-old rendezvous beneath the eaves of historic San Juan Capistrano Mission today. They began arriving out of a murky sky from the south around 6:30 A.M., and within a few minutes were waging their annual warfare with the swifts which had moved into their quarters since their departure last Saint John's Day, October 2.3. As usual, the swallows were victorious, and soon they were settling themselves for their summer's stay. For a century, tradition has held that the swallows have left the adobe walls of the mission, founded in 1776 by the Order of Saint Francis, annually on the feast day of its patron saint, and have returned on Saint Joseph's Day. The popular song of 1940, 'When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,' was composed by a New Orleans Negro Leon Rene, formerly a student of Xavier University.
The larger Saint Joseph altars in New Orleans are built in tiers, upon which is arranged the food, which usually includes everything that can be bought in markets or delicatessens and many homemade Italian delicacies unknown in other American homes.
Always occupying the place of honor in the center is a large statue of Saint Joseph, and grouped about this, statues of other saints. There are huge candles, some weighing as much as ten pounds, gilded and embellished with representations of angels and flowers. Electric lights, Christmas-tree ornaments, vases and bowls of fresh and artificial flowers are placed here and there among dishes and platters of food. The Times-Picayune described the edibles on one altar thus:
There were three types of Italian bread, made in the shapes of wreaths, as offerings to the Holy Family. A stuffed lobster, a baked redfish and quantities of shrimp occupied places of prominence. There were alligator pears, prickly pears, nuts, Japanese persimmons, fried cauliflower, fig cakes, snap beans, stuffed crabs, doughnuts, peanuts, crayfish, pineapples, grapefruit, mulberries, onions, celery, nectarines, oranges, almonds, tomatoes, grapes, plums, artichokes, dates and frosted layer cakes by the dozen. In and out between the squash, spinach, fruit cake and ripe peaches were bowls of antipasto relish and bottles of wine. Neat cones of pigulasto, a pastry of dough and molasses, lent an ornamental touch with the many vases of roses, lilies, carnations and sweet peas. Sweet-scented pittosporum twined about the structure. Most of the food was to be given away. . ..Everyone is invited to come and pay homage to Saint Joseph.
In the New Orleans newspaper columns known as the Personal Columns always filled with curious notices peculiar to the city public invitations are extended annually to anyone wishing to visit the altars.
The Saint Joseph's bread and the lucky beans are the most important items on the altars, and a small piece of bread, a lucky bean and sometimes a bay leaf or two are given every visitor.