Soon enough, if not already, fig cookies, lemons and fava beans will adorn pied St. Joseph Altars at local Catholic churches to celebrate the feast day of the saint.
The tradition dates back to the Middle Ages, when the people of Sicily commemorated the end of a drought-caused famine. The islanders attributed the abundant rain and crops to prayers to St. Joseph, and a celebration grew into a tradition.
People would supply the altars with grains, fish, sweets, flowers, meatless Sicilian dishes and religious articles to give thanks for the intercession of St. Joseph. Sicilian immigrants brought the custom to Louisiana, and it is celebrated near St. Joseph’s Day.
“The Italian connection here in south Louisiana is why (the tradition) is so prevalent here. I think that culturally, for our area, it’s significant,” said Chris Redden, the pastoral assistant at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Baton Rouge.
Redden said he has received an abundance of phone calls from community members in preparation for the tradition. This year, he’s preparing for about double the number of people the Cathedral normally has at the 10:30 a.m. Mass.
Kathryn Lewis, the owner of Maxwell’s Market, will host a St. Joseph Altar from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, March 20, at 7620 Corporate Blvd., in Baton Rouge.
Lewis started the tradition at the store in March 2020, but she has celebrated the tradition with her husband for years, as both sides of his family are Sicilian, she said. This year, her altar at the store will include a blessed statue of St. Joseph and traditional items like Italian cookies, bread, fava beans, artichoke balls, lemons and various cakes.
Citrus are common on St. Joseph Altars, but lemons hold a peculiar symbolism. Tradition says that if you steal a lemon from the altar, you’ll find a husband or wife. Fava beans, on the other hand, are a symbol for good luck.
“In Sicily, there was a famine, so they prayed to St. Joseph. Rain came, and the fava beans grew,” Lewis said. “They say that if you carry fava beans in your purse or pocket, you’ll never be without money.”
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