Sicilian Folklife, St. Joseph's Tables

Sicilian Folklife, St. Joseph's Tables

Sicilian Folklife in Los Angeles

Many aspects of traditional life seem to have fared better among Sicilians than among other regional Italians. Sicilians still dance the tarantella, sing dialect songs informally, practice their folk religious rituals and regional cuisine. As one Sicilian, Virginia Buscemi Carlson, passionately affirms: "without our traditions, there would be nothing left: we would be just like everyone else." It may be no coincidence therefore, that more than one cultural group exists for Sicilians in Los Angeles (Arba Sicula and Sicilia Culturale [See: CLUBS AND ASSOCIATIONS). The feast day of St. Joseph's in Los Angeles features a notable Sicilian custom: St. Joseph's Day Tables. This custom has not only been maintained through two and three generations largely intact, but actually shows some signs of crossing ethnic and religious boundaries. In 2005, for example, a Table was be offered at All Saints Episcopal Church (in conjunction with Slow Food and Sustainable World), in Pasadena, as part of a food justice program.

St. Joseph's Tables

"The mid-Lenten Sicilian custom of the St. Joseph's Table, often lasting as many as three days (St. Joseph's feast day is March 19), is widely celebrated in Los Angeles, as in many other areas of diaspora Sicilian settlement.

St. Joseph's "table" normally includes a devotional altar with a statue of the saint holding the infant Jesus, rising (or separate) from a table, blessed by a priest. The table is laden with elaborate food offerings of traditional braided breads, vegetables, fruits, and sweets. The ritual collection of these foods by begging (the questua) from family, friends, even strangers, is a necessary aspect of offering an altar.

Beautifully-dressed salmon,
offered by Celestino Drago to the 1998 table
at the UCLA Armand Hammer Museum

The large braided breads (cudureddi) are typically in the form of cross, crown (for Jesus), staff (for Joseph), palm (for Mary), while the smaller breads may symbolize instruments of the Passion, or even fanciful shapes such as sun, moon, stars, flowers, birds, and so forth. Vegetables include fried or stuffed cauliflower, artichokes, zucchine, eggplant, cardoons, frittate (omelettes) of every sort: fava bean, asparagus, peas, peppers, while the season's finest first fruits are arranged in baskets replicating cornucopias of plenty. Since this feast falls within the meatless Lenten season, fish is featured, as are traditional Sicilian sweets such as persiche (cream-filled pasteries made to look like peaches), cassadini (sweet ravioli), sfingi, cannoli, and fig cookies.

Many continue to be private devotional tables, promised to the saint to secure favor for a loved one who is sick or in some special need, or in response to a prayer which has been granted, to honor one's namesake, or as a general "Sicilian Thanksgiving." Increasingly, however, tables are becoming public or semi-public events, held in a church (often affiliated with the Italian Catholic Federation, ICF [see: RELIGION]), banquet hall, retirement home, or family business.

Women singing: members of the St. Joseph's
Guild of Mary Star of the Sea Church, San Pedro,
singing a novena at the opening of the Table
at the UCLA Armand Hammer Museum, 1998
Widely diffused in Sicily, St. Joseph's tables were primarily meant for directly feeding the poor as a form of public charity. Now, in Sicily, as in Los Angeles, they function more indirectly as a means of raising funds for charities. Three of the poorest of the village, including orphans, were dressed as Mary, Joseph, Jesus (I santi, the "Saints" as they are called) and reenacted the Holy Family seeking lodging (cf. Las Posadas for Mexicans). The Family ritually knocks on three doors, is turned away twice, and then finally finds shelter and food at the home of the family giving the table. The "Saints" are seated directly at the table, and served a substantial meal (a taste of every item, sometimes a ritual 3, of the blessed food). Thereafter, all are invited to the communal banquet where typically a "poor man's meal" is served: either a bean soup, a cuscusu (couscous) if you are from Trapani, or pasta with sarde (pasta with sardines), in addition to bread and fruit. No one is turned away. In Sicily, an olive branch or palm frond over the door signaled to the village that a family had opened its doors to the community. After supper, guests are given blessed foods, a bread roll, perhaps an orange, and perhaps fava beans (sometimes referred to as "lucky beans") to take home.

Priest blessing the St. Joseph's Table,
at the exhibition's opening
Although details vary among Sicilians themselves, the focus is always on the altar-table, and on feeding the community, whether that is a restricted circle of family and friends, the neighborhood, or village, and on how the funds are gathered. At public events, food may be sold or auctioned, a donation may be requested for the meal or for viewing the table. In Sicily, significant funds may be raised by auctioning St. Joseph's beard! Proceeds and foods are then given to the poor.

You can participate in these festivities in several places around town: at Casa Italiana (affiliated with St. Peter's Italian Church, 1039 North Broadway), at many churches affiliated with the Italian Catholic Federation, as well as at Mary Star of the Sea church in San Pedro (870 8th St.), where one of the most fully-articulated celebrations occurs, including a special mass, a procession with saint, followed by children in costume, a marching band, guilds, societies, and confraternities, and ending in a large banquet. It was at this church that the first public table ever given in the Los Angeles area was held in 1958, according to Charles Speroni, one of the first to study St. Joseph Tables in Southern California. The church's own St. Joseph Guild, comprised of approximately 35 (largely Sicilian) women, whose yearly task it is to organize the public charity event and feed hundreds from the church kitchen, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1998.

Children in costume during the procession
around Mary Star of the Sea Church
in San Pedro on St. Joseph's day, 1999
St. Joseph's Tables have become one of the major manifestations of Italian ethnicity in Los Angeles. As the poor and the homeless grow in Los Angeles, this ethnically-specific custom has gained renewed relevancy. It is perhaps for this reason, in part, that St. Joseph is finding his place in the city of Angels, and into the hearts of non-Sicilians as well, making this ritual of food redistribution a "feast for our times." With its simplicity of intent, a tradition with roots in a far-off land and remote past addresses issues which are both contemporary and urgent, and demonstrates once again how traditional cultures may enrich modern urban life and help tackle some of its problemsñwith humanity, grace, and sometimes divine inspiration."

[Excerpt from: Luisa Del Giudice, "Joseph Among the Angels: St Joseph's Tables and Feeding the Poor in Los Angeles," exhibition program, exhibition co-curated by Luisa Del Giudice and Virginia Buscemi Carlson, UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum and Cultural Center, March 18-19, 1998.All Rights Reserved]

St. Joseph's Tables

Check the calendar section of l'Italo-Americano in March for other public St. Joseph's Day Tables around the Southland.

Procession entering Mary
Star of the Sea Church
on St. Joseph's day, 1999
Mary Star of the Sea Church
870 8th St.
San Pedro, CA
Tel: 310-833-3541
Fax: 310-833-9254

St. Peter's Church, Casa Italiana
1051 N. Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Tel: 323-225-8119
Fax: 323-225-0085

Italian Catholic Federation

Italian Catholic Federation
c/o St. Francis Xavier Parish
3801 Scott Road
Burbank, CA 91504

Father Bizzotto, blessing a St. Joseph's Table
(given by the Patrons of Italian Culture),
at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in 2003.
Photo by Sarah Walzer


St. Raymond's Parish
12348 Paramount Blvd.
Downey, CA
Tel: (562) 869-7024

Further reading:

Speroni, Charles."Observance of St. Joseph's Day Among the Sicilians of Southern California." Southern Folklore Quarterly 4.3 (1940): 135-139.

"Southern California File," column by Rosanne Keynan, Los Angeles Times, Mar 11, 1995. p.5

From the IOHI Archives: "The Development of Italian Womenís Identity" by Erica Turley, student project [Includes: 1) 14-page typescript, 2) summary outline of audio cassette; 3) Photo Album ("Rosalia Orlandoís Altars": 15 photos: La Madonna del Ponte, Unknown saint, Rosalia & Giuseppe Orlando's wedding, interview, Rosalia and her mother, Giuseppa La Fata, Paolina Manzella, Founders of San Pedro's Saint Joseph's Table: Mrs. Giusenie Dukie, Nunzia díOrio, Paolina Manzella, Rosaria Lo Grande, Giuseppa La Fata, Procession of St. Joseph, St. Joseph's Table, Giuseppe, Rosalia and Carlo as Holy Family; 5 prayer/saints' cards); 4) 2- 90-min. audio cassettes with Rosalia Orlando, La Fata, Manzella (June 8, 1999)]; Videos: St. Joseph's Day Tables, 1 VHS home video, St. Joseph's Church, Los Angeles, March 18, 1990 [videographer: Ken Carlson]; St. Joseph's Day Tables, 1 VHS home video (videographer: Ken Carlson); St. Joseph's Day Tables, Casa Italiana, 1995, VHS video (videographer Steve Weimeyer); Celebrazione di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph's celebration), Dinner dance, Casa Italiana, n.d.; Radio program: St. Joseph's Day Tables, Luisa Del Giudice, interviewed by Evan Kleiman, KCRW program "Good Food," April 8, 2000; audio cassette.

From the IOHI Archives: "Sicilian Festivals in Los Angeles" Jennifer Pendergrass, UCLA student project, June 14, 1999 [Includes: 1) 22-page typescript, tape transcript; 2) 90-min audio cassette, interview with Virginia Buscemi Carlson]

"I Santi" (the Saints), St. Joseph's Day,
St. Peterís Church, 2005

Part of the St. Josephís Table at Casa Italiana,
with woven palm-fronds (Palm Sunday coincided with St. Joseph's feast day, March 19, 2005)

Immacolata Attolico selling
St. Joseph's candles, as she has
done at Casa Italiana for decades

Detail from the St. Josephs
Table given at the UCLA
Hammer Museum, 1998

The St. Joseph's Table at Casa
Italiana, 2005

Mr & Mrs. Vaccaro in front of their
private St. Joseph's altar (1995). The
Vaccaros gave an annual table in San Pedro
for over 20 years