Sicily has many religious festivals, many dating back to ancient times. March 19th is celebrated throughout Italy as a day of honoring and giving thanks to Saint Joseph the patron saint of workers and artisans.
As the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is befitting that Father's Day is also held on this day throughout Italy.
It was during a severe drought, in the Middle Ages, when crops were failing and families were starving, people prayed to St. Joseph to help them by sending rain. They promised a feast in his name if he could answer their prayers. The rain came, crops were planted and the people kept their word and now every year prepare a table (tavola) of thanks to St. Joseph.
Although the prayers may no longer be asking for rain, people use this celebration to ask not for material things but for the well-being or safe return of a loved one. During this time, prayers are kept private and personal.
Traditionally, the tables have a three stepped display, representing the Holy Trinity. There are both public and private St. Joseph's tables and much of the food is donated or asked for, this is called the "questua". Although each table will be different they will display an effigy of Joseph holding Jesus.
The St. Joseph's table is adorned with flowers and fruit as well as traditional peasant style foods including braided bread and fava beans. The observance occurs during Lent, therefore the dishes are made without meat.
Breadcrumbs are sometimes added to dishes, to represent sawdust which commemorates Joseph's work as a carpenter. For dessert zeppole, cannoli and fig cookies are presented.
The St. Joseph's tables on the island of Lipari include fish, making their festivities different than other places.
Their day of thanksgiving to Joseph stems from a legend where sailors were saved after being caught in a savage storm while returning to Italy. The sailors prayed to St. Joseph for their survival promising to make a day of remembrance in his honor.
The long standing tradition has been transported to other countries outside Italy.
Cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City and New Orleans, where many Italian families have settled and kept the tradition alive.
Although they may have been born and raised outside Italy, their faithfulness to the grace of St. Joseph is passed on as an important part, not just as a religious ceremony, but as part of their Italian heritage.
Visiting Sicily any time of year is enjoyable but during this festive time in March the tourist will experience an outpouring of gratitude to one of Italy's favorite saints.