Saint Joseph’s Day, how Sicilians celebrate this holiday

Saint Joseph's Day

March 19th is Saint Joseph ’s Day, in Sicily many people have a big feast and follow very peculiar traditions. Why is it so important? Moreover, since St. Joseph was the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so Jesus’ father, on the same day all around Italy we celebrate even Father’s Day. Are you curious to know more? Read the article on Sicilian Secrets’ blog.

Italians, Sicilians, Italian-Americans, everybody celebrates Saint Joseph ’s Day! The reason why this Saint is so popular dates back to the Middle Ages. During a very bad drought that was causing famine in Sicily, many families were starving and prayed to St. Joseph. Rain, it was all that they needed. After a few days, the rain came, so the farmers planted new crops and people decided to say thanks to the Saint by preparing a special banquet each year to remember the miracle over the centuries. One of the dishes generally used to enrich the table is the so-called (in Sicilian dialect) maccu di San Giuseppe, a sort of soup made with fava beans as a primary ingredient. Why? Because, according to legend, fava bean was the crop that saved the population from starvation!

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A Sicilian family that celebrates Saint Joseph’s Day in 1934

Saint Joseph’s Day: what happens in Sicily

The altars

March 19th is a mix of profane and religion. If on one hand devotion for Saint Joseph is very strong all-around Sicily, on the other hand, many folkloristic events occur. The most typical celebration is the altar. People generally decorate them with candles, flowers, bread, fava beans and some traditional Sicilian pastries called sfince. Since the feast happens always during Lent, no meat dishes are allowed! But there’s an exception: in Lipari (the main of the Aeolian Islands) the story about the Saint is different and talks about some sailors saved from a storm…here even some fish are allowed as part of the feast.

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The altar

The altar represents the Holy Trinity, this is why it is commonly composed of three tiers but can even take other shapes such as the cross. Families prepare their own altar about nine days before the holiday and break it down right after dinner on March 19th. What happens to the food used on the display? Most of the time, it is donated. In fact in the past, rich bourgeoises used to open the door of their houses and let poor people share the table set for Saint Joseph, the so-called Tavulata di Virgineddi. Virgineddi were the kids that recently received the First Communion, at the same time they were also the first ones served during the meal.

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The altar

The meal

According to the tradition, the classic meal for Saint Joseph’s Day consisted of 7 dishes considered as food of God: rice and beans, pasta and beans, pasta with wild fennel, pasta with broccoli, wild fennel and salted codfish, oranges and 2 different pastries, sfince and cassatelle. Nowadays, it’s more common to have a meal with only 5 dishes and many families, instead of inviting poor people to share dinner with them, just offer some money.

Saint Joseph

The events around the island

This holiday is also a good opportunity to visit Sicily. It’s almost spring and Saint Joseph’s Day literally makes you plunge into Sicilian culture. Around the island, basically in every town, it’s possible to assist in moving processions characterized by ancient prayers and songs and to typical events.

Saint Joseph

In Palermo, for example, the most famous tradition is the vampa, a bonfire in the historical districts of the city.

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Vampa (Palermo)


In Scicli, in the province of Ragusa, people organize St. Joseph’s riding and, in this occasion, horses are covered with hundreds flowers.

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St. Joseph’s riding (Scicli)

In Godrano, they have some live performances to tell the story of the Holy Family. But, since in the past many Sicilian families moved overseas, don’t be surprised to see similar celebrations even in the United States, above all in New York, Chicago and New Orleans where still today American-Italian families keep the tradition alive.

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St. Joseph in the U.S.A.

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