If you’re not Catholic or from New Orleans (or a Catholic from New Orleans), you probably haven’t heard about St. Joseph’s Day. St. Patrick tends to get all the glory two days earlier, but if you have ties to New Orleans, you probably know that St. Joseph’s Day is a big deal in the Crescent City, at least in certain communities.
I didn’t know enough about St. Joseph’s day to write about it with much authority off the top of my head, so I did a Google search. I found much information about the Sicilian American traditions in New Orleans so I’ll be doing a lot of cutting and pasting from that site. (Unless I state otherwise, assume information about the Sicilian American traditions is coming from that site.)
March 19th marks the Catholic celebration of St.Josephs [sic] Day where Catholic New Orleanians construct elaborate altars in honor of this saint. The tradition, commemorating the relief St. Joseph provided during a famine in Sicily, began in the late 1800’s when Sicilian immigrants settled in New Orleans.
St. Joseph altars, representing the Holy Trinity, are divided into three sections with a statue of St. Joseph at the head.
The devout place candles, figurines, flowers, medals and other items around the alter creating a beautiful, lush and overflowing effect. Since the altars thank St. Joseph for relieving hunger, offerings of food are essential. Cookies, cakes and breads, often in the form of shell fish, are common decorations for alatars [sic]. Fava beans, or “lucky beans” are particularly associated with St. Joseph because they sustained the Sicilians throughout famine.
Traditionally, the altar is broken up on St. Joseph’s day with a ceremony of costumed children, pretending to look for shelter, finding sustenance at the altar. Food and donations are then distributed to the poor.
Hosted by the American Italian Marching club, one of the largest ethnic group organizations in the southeast, the annual St. Joseph’s day parade in the French Quarter is a local favorite. The evening begins with food, wine and Italian music followed by marchers dressed in black tuxedos proceeding to parade until dark.
If you happen to be in New Orleans today, you can visit one or more St. Joseph altars. Altars are found at local New Orleans churches, especially those with strong Italian roots, but they are also constructed in private homes, halls, Italian restaurants, and public spaces in different communities throughout the city. The Times Picayune, a local newspaper, usually reveals a week in advance where the archdiocese of New Orleans will host altars with visiting hours and food services. Some popular places for a guaranteed look include the St. Louis Cathedral at Jackson Square and the St. Joseph church on Tulane Avenue by the Italian Renaissance Museum. And if you happen to see a fresh green branch over a local’s doorway, it means you’re invited to participate in the ceremony and to share the food.
Mardi Gras Indians also have a connection to St. Joseph’s Day. According to http://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/supersunday.html,
Nobody is completely certain when the tradition of Mardi Gras Indians “masking” on St. Joseph’s night began. However, there have been reports of Indians on St. Joseph’s night dating back to before World War I. The custom seems to have come about simply because it was a good opportunity. With all of the Catholic Italians celebrating this holiday in the streets, the Indians were able to blend in and celebrate as well.
Before 1969, the Indians celebrated by coming out at night to meet and greet other “gangs”. In 1969, the first parade was created and rolled through town at night. In 1970, it was switched to a day parade on Sunday afternoon, and has continued in that tradition to this day.
Aside from Mardi Gras Day, the most significant day for the Mardi Gras Indians is their Super Sunday. The New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council always has their Indian Sunday on the third Sunday of March, around St. Joseph’s Day. Their festivities begin at noon in A.L. Davis Park (at Washington & LaSalle Streets) where the Mardi Gras Indians once again dress in their feathers and suits and take to the streets to meet other “gangs”.
If you want to visit New Orleans, but don’t want to deal with the crowds of Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest, I recommend you travel to the Crescent City in mid-March. The weather is still cool (by New Orleans standards, at least), and if you time it right, you can see Mardi Gras Indians and St. Joseph’s altars.
Since I am neither African American nor Sicilian American, I did not grow up with any of these St. Joseph’s Day traditions. I’ve been to the Mardi Gras Indians’ Super Sunday festivities once, and I visited a St. Joseph’s Day altar once.