March 9, 2009 4:18 PM

March 19 is just a handful of days away. This day is the feast day of St. Joseph--the spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the foster-father to the child Jesus. He was a builder by trade. Tradition holds that he was a carpenter, but he might also have been a stonemason or something of the like. That part isn't important.

Joseph is the patron saint of an impressive list of patronages, but the people of Sicily consider him to practically be their property. I've read elsewhere that Joseph was not always a popular saint; it wasn't the early dark ages that he became popular. Today though, he's quite an important guy--and the namesake of countless cities, universities and churches.

It's a Catholic tradition to throw a feast in the middle of the otherwise penitential season of Lent, this feast is called St. Joseph's Table. It dates back to the middle ages when Sicily was in the middle of a great drought. People prayed for rain, asking for San Giuseppe's (St. Joseph, in Italian) intercession to save their crops. Rains came* and the town threw a huge party in celebration for the fruits of their harvest, dedicated to St Joseph--these events, called tables, were a pretty common way to share thanksgiving to anyone, not just saints. A mayor could be thrown a table if he did something good for a city, for instance.

We don't really know when the first St. Joseph's Table was held, but it's celebrated yearly in March because March is the month dedicated to St. Joseph. The church dedicates certain months of the year to certain people or causes, not unlike how the USA dedicates February as Black History Month, October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, January as Radon Detection Month, etc. And since March is usually smack in the middle of Lent, the St. Joseph's Table is a meatless festival (which also notes the fruits of harvest as the root of the celebration).

The Tables would develop into an event for the poor in the community. There is no price for the dinner, the tradition was that everyone would be accepted to the feast. But they take donations at the door, which are solely dedicated to helping the poor. Additionally, the tables take big donations of cookies, breads, pies, wines, etc. which are displayed on the table, then are sold for the poor. Many tables could also be rightly called altars, with multi-tiered displays reaching all the way to the ceiling. In Sicily and Italy (and later, Italian neighborhoods in the USA), people would go door-to-door begging alms or donations for the table--it was common to go into a shop and ask for a loaf of bread or tray of cannoli for the table, so the table was made from the gifts of the community.

A lot of Catholic churches in heavily Italian neighborhoods throw a table every year and have HUGE crowds. One of the most notable tables in beautiful Kansas City is at Holy Rosary church in Columbus Park (the area that used to be known as "Little Italy" east of the River Market, these days it's actually more like "Litte Southeast Asia"), where they a notable turnout for their event. At my home parish of St. Joseph in Shawnee doesn't have a remarkably large Italian population, but they have some. St. Joseph's Church started a tradition of the table a few years ago in honor of the namesake of the parish, and it's turned into a decently large event. Their table was Sunday, probably a concession to scheduling in a busy parish. They also served spaghetti with meat sauce. Pfft. Light weight noveltists.

So get ready! Especially if you're Italian, named Joseph, a carpenter or like it when it rains on Sicily, get ready for March 19. It's the lesser-known date that is overshadowed by the green-beered festivities of St. Patrick's Day. Take the time to make a meatless spaghetti dinner and eat enough carbs to give Dr. Adkins a heart attack. Bonus points if you head down to the Wonder Bread outlet and ask if you can have some free Twinkies for the event. Invite your friends over and tell them to get out their checkbooks and start writing: those food pantries aren't going to fill themselves.

*This part of the story reminds me of a anecdote that a friend of mine used to tell about how his mother used to nag his dad all the time. He said nagging was like Indian rain dances: they always worked because the Indians would just dance until it rained.

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