March is the Month of St. Joseph and the ultimate way to give him honor is with your very own St. Joseph Altar. Sounds intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. There are certain guidelines that will help you get started, but remember, it’s your Altar and it should reflect you and your family. Our first home Altar was very simple: a cake, some cookies, and coloring pages by the kids! It’s a family affair, so be sure to get everyone involved.
The St. Joseph Altar is Sicilian in origin. During a terrible famine, the people of Sicily pleaded to St. Joseph, their patron, for relief. St. Joseph answered their prayers, and the famine ended. In gratitude, they prepared a table with foods they had harvested. After paying homage to St. Joseph, they distributed the food to the less fortunate.
The Altar is set up in three tiers, representing the Holy Trinity. A statue of St. Joseph is placed on the top tier, usually surrounded by flowers, greenery, & fruit.
No meat is prepared for the Altar. This is probably because St. Joseph’s Feast falls in the Lenten Season and also because meat was a rarity to the Sicilian peasants. Breads, cakes and cookies, baked in symbolic Christian shapes, are prepared. Pastries in the shapes of monstrances, chalices, crosses, doves, lambs, fish, bibles, hearts, wreaths and palms adorn the tiers of the Altar. Symbols of St. Joseph – such as lilies, staffs, sandals, ladders, saws, hammers and nails – are also used. There is symbolism in many of the items on the Altar. Breadcrumbs represent the sawdust of St. Joseph the Carpenter. Twelve whole fish represent the apostles. Wine is symbolic of the miracle at Cana.
The Altar is a medium of petition and thanksgiving. Petitions of the faithful are written on pieces of paper and placed in baskets on the Altar. Photos of deceased relatives and friends may decorate the Altar as well.
Visitors to St. Joseph Altars are given small paper bags containing a few blessed items from the Altar. The bags usually contain a holy card and a small medal. Various cookies or small breads may also be in the bag.
The most interesting item in the goodie bag is the fava bean. In Sicily, the fava was fodder for cattle. During the great famine, people resorted to eating them to survive. They were considered lucky to have favas to eat, hence the fava bean is also known as a “lucky bean.” Some believe that the pantry that contains a fava bean will never be bare. The fava, or lucky bean, serves as a token of the Altar – a reminder of God’s provisions through the intercession of St. Joseph.
The Virtual St. Joseph Altar, which began in February of 1999, is based on the tradition of the Sicilian Altars of New Orleans. Visitors to the online Altar can make offerings, request prayers, and learn more about this tradition. You’ll also find a downloadable cut-and-color 3D Altar . With this fun family craft you can create your own mini St. Joseph’s Altar and you, and your little ones, will learn about the lovely St. Joseph Altar tradition. There are coloring pages, recipes, image galleries, and even a goodie bag!
Visit The Virtual St. Joseph Altar. Viva San Giuseppe!