The St. Patrick’s parade is over and the Irish (and honorary Irish) have gone home to sleep off their annual bout of intemperance, but the multi-generational marchers of the Italian-American St. Joseph Society in New Orleans are only just dusting off their tuxedos and straightening their bow ties. Once the shamrocks and shenanigans have vanished from the narrow streets of the French Quarter, and the keg of green beer is empty, another parade — in honor of an entirely different saint — is beginning to gear up.
Every year on the Saturday nearest March 19, Italian-American Catholic revelers flood the streets in honor of the Feast of St. Joseph, the patron saint of Sicily. The differences between the St. Patrick’s Day festivities and the St. Joseph’s Day parade are unmistakable. Instead of green, St. Joseph’s marchers wear red. Instead of shamrocks, they carry lucky fava beans.
The parade in New Orleans is rooted to a reverent, yet humble start: In 1970, a single pickup truck honoring St. Joseph trailed behind the yearly Irish Channel Parade, according to Mark Fonte, historian for the St. Joseph Society. But the Italian-American community in the city longed for a public way to express their heritage and appreciation for St. Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary and foster father to Jesus.
In the early 1970s, the society petitioned for their own parade. “It was around the time that the first Godfather movie came out,” says Fonte. “It gave us a big boost. Everybody wanted to be Italian.”
There are St. Joseph’s celebrations across the country — and the world — but none so big, bold or festive as in New Orleans. This year, more than 300 marchers and 11 floats will trek down Chartres Street, past the green-shuttered building where former New Orleans Mayor Nicholas Girod offered his residence as a haven to exiled Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815. Leading the procession is a rolling altar bearing Italian food and relics dedicated to St. Joseph. Many local Catholic churches, families and stores also construct altars.
The St. Joseph’s Day parade route takes a veritable stroll through French Quarter history. And though Creole culture is now uniquely synonymous with the modern New Orleans tableau, Fonte explains that there is a storied history of Italian heritage in the French Quarter.
In the mid-19th century, thousands of families immigrated to the United States from Sicily, many traveling the long, arduous route from the capital city of Palermo to the bustling port of New Orleans. Desperate to escape famine and political turmoil in Italy, many immigrants settled in the lower French Quarter, establishing their own tiny enclave — known as Little Palermo.
According to Fonte, the celebration of the Feast of St. Joseph was one “tradition that came over with these immigrants — and it just stayed.” During the Middle Ages, legend claims, Sicily was in the midst of a great drought. The desperate citizens prayed to St. Joseph, beseeching him for rain. Amazingly, one crop endured to sustain them: the hearty fava bean. When God sent Joseph to grant them rain and the drought ended, the grateful people of Sicily vowed to honor their blessings each year on March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph. Historically, throughout small towns in Sicily, a communal meal was held near the center of town to celebrate St. Joseph’s Day, where food donated and prepared by the wealthy was shared with those less fortunate. In some U.S. cities, opening up your home to the neighborhood and the poor is still part of the celebration.
As they travel the parade route, tuxedoed men distribute symbols of both their history and their present: strings of colorful beads, dried fava beans and genuine Italian kisses. At the end of procession, the crowd gathers at a local hotel for a ball where old customs and modern tastes fully converge. Families pass around bottles of hearty table wine and the band strikes up a Louis Prima tune. The couples dance the Tarantella. And together, they all feast on a mountain of local New Orleans muffuletta.
In the middle of Susan Vacarella’s living room is a three-tiered altar to St. Joseph built to rival any in New Orleans. More than 8-feet wide and 10-feet long, it’s taken years of fine-tuning to fashion a shrine glorious enough to entice more than 100 family and friends to bask in its magnificence.
Although many people in New Orleans create altars to celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph, there are few as extravagant as the Vacarella’s. Susan’s husband, Morris Vacarella, says it was inspired by the one he remembered at his grandparents’ house while growing up in the 1940s and ’50s. Many of the relics have a poignant, personal meaning. The faded painting of the Holy Family hails from his grandparents; a friend donated the tall wooden statue of St. Joseph from a mission trip to an Italian convent.
After Hurricane Betsy swept through New Orleans in 1965, Morris Vaccarella’s grandparents no longer could muster up the energy to create such a grand display. But Susan Vaccarella was ready — and willing — to carry on the family tradition. “I had it in my heart to bring it back one day. Our altar really began in honor of them.”
Over the years, the Vacarella’s altar has become an amalgamation of Italian-American tradition and contemporary New Orleans soul. There is the platter with the large scaly fish, representing Jesus, which is adorned by 12 plump shrimp, which, although interpretations vary, most likely represent Jesus’ apostles. There are wreath-shaped loaves of bread (representing Jesus’ crown of thorns) called Cuchidati and thickly glazed cookies, a reminder of the fig trees that dominate the landscape of Southern Italy. Pasta Con Sarde, a traditional spaghetti dish made with anchovies and sprinkled with breadcrumbs, is the main dish. The breadcrumbs symbolize sawdust — a tribute to Joseph’s career as a carpenter.
The guests make personal petitions to St. Joseph and the food on the altar is blessed. Finally, they share in one ritual that’s essential to any Italian-American celebration: “We eat all afternoon,” says Susan Vacarella.
Traditions Reign Supreme
There is an old Sicilian legend that states that if a single, unmarried woman pockets a lemon from the altar of St. Joseph when no one is looking, she will wed by the time the feast day rolls around again. But Susan Vacarella conveys the legend in another way. “If a woman steals a lemon from the altar, she will soon have a baby,” she explains with a laugh. “You have to put it under your pillow. That’s how it happens.”
Nestled on the Vacarella’s St. Joseph’s Day altar, between the tempting, lucky lemons, the platters of plump N’Awlins prawns and frosted white lamb cakes, are framed photos of deceased family members, including Morris’ grandparents. The Vacarellas encourage guests to pen a short tribute to their loved ones and post it on a board near the altar. The parade, the feast and the altar are ways for Italian Americans to trace their family’s historic journey, along with honoring St. Joseph, who is also the patron saint of dying a “happy death.”
St. Joseph’s Day in New Orleans is a tradition woven out of diverse fabrics. It is a celebration of grateful abundance and a modern retelling of an old-world legend; it’s a feast of the senses and a religious homage to a beloved saint. But threaded into the story of the big parade and meal is a long-raveling historical yarn of the resilient immigrant spirit in America.
Nicole Jankowski is a freelance food, history and culture writer based in Detroit. You can find her on Facebook here.