Celebrations Around the World, March 18: St. Joseph’s Eve

St. Joseph’s Eve

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: March 19 in the West; July 29 in the East
Where Celebrated: Italy, Sicily, Spain, United States, and by Christians all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Breads, Fruits, and Grains; Fish; Flowering Rod


Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary and foster-father of Jesus, has been honored as a saint since the earliest days of the Christian Church. But very little is known about his life, or even the exact date of his death, which is believed to have occurred when Jesus Christ was eighteen.

The basis of saint day remembrances-for St. Joseph as well as other saints-is found in ancient Roman tradition. On the anniversary of a death, families would share a ritual meal at the grave site of an ancestor. This practice was adopted by Christians who began observing a ritual meal on the death anniversary of ancestors in the faith, especially martyrs. As a result, most Christian saint days are associated with the death of the saint. There are three important exceptions. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus are honored on their nativities (birthdays). Many who suffered martyrdom are remembered on saint days in the calendars of several Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects.

By the thirteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church had instituted canonization, the process of making a person a saint. Before that, Christians venerated people they considered saints. In 1870 Pope Pius IX formally proclaimed Joseph the patron of the universal church.

St. Joseph’s Day is widely celebrated in Italy as a day of feasting and sharing with the poor, of whom he is the patron saint. Each village prepares a “table of St. Joseph” by contributing money, candles, flowers, and food (see FISH ). Then they invite three guests of honor-representing Mary, Joseph, and Jesus-to join in their feast, as well as others representing the twelve apostles. They also invite the orphans, widows, beggars, and poor people of the village to eat with them. The food is blessed by the village priest and by the child chosen to represent Jesus; St. Joseph’s Day

then it is passed from one person to the next. Dia de San Giuseppe, as the day is known, is celebrated by Italians in the United States and in other countries as well.

In Valencia, Spain, it is a week-long festival (March 12-19) called Fallas de San Jose (Bonfires of St. Joseph). Its roots can be found in medieval times, when the carpenters’ guild (of whom Joseph was the patron saint) made a huge bonfire on St. Joseph’s Eve out of the wood shavings that had accumulated over the winter. This was considered the end of the winter and the last night on which candles and lamps would have to be lighted. In fact, the carpenters often burned the parot, or wooden candelabrum, in front of their shops.

In Valencia nowadays the parots have become fallas, or huge floats of intricate scenes made of wood and papier-mâché, satirizing everything from the high cost of living to political personalities. On St. Joseph’s Eve, March 18, the fallas parade through the streets. At midnight on March 19, the celebration ends with a spectacular ceremony known as the crema, when all the fallas are set on fire.

Among Sicilian Catholics living in the United States, St. Joseph’s Day is a major event-the equivalent of ST. PATRICK’S DAY among Irish-Americans. This is particularly true in New Orleans, Milwaukee, and other cities where there are large Sicilian populations. In Southern California, a custom similar to the Hispanic POSADAS takes place on St. Joseph’s Day: Mary’s and Joseph’s search for shelter is reenacted by children, who go from house to house requesting lodging for the night. When they reach the third house, they are greeted by a large St. Joseph’s Altar and an elaborate meal.


Breads, Fruits, and Grains

Cards exchanged by Roman Catholics on St. Joseph’s Day often show specially baked breads, fruits, and grains along with images of the saint. They are a symbol of fertility and abundance, although now the day is more of an ethnic festival than a celebration of spring.


The tables or altars set up in Sicilian homes on St. Joseph’s Day are often used to display the special foods associated with the holiday. Fish is a favorite choice, probably because this holy day falls during LENT, when meat is forbidden. But it may also have something to do with fish as a fertility symbol (see BREADS , FRUITS , AND GRAINS ) and a symbol of Christianity. The fish often stands for Christ in Christian art and literature because the five Greek letters forming the word “fish” are the initial letters of the five words, “Jesus Christ God’s Son Savior.” The fish is also a symbol of baptism: Just as the fish cannot live out of the water, the true Christian cannot live except through the waters of baptism.

Flowering Rod

Mary didn’t choose Joseph to be her husband. According to legend, the priest Zacharius was told by an angel to gather together all the widowers, instructing them to bring their rods (or staffs) with them. Joseph appeared with the rest, and their rods were placed in the temple overnight in the hope that God would provide a sign to indicate which of them he favored. The next morning, it was discovered that Joseph’s rod had burst into flower, and a white dove flew out of it. This was taken to be a clear sign of God’s intentions for him. In paintings of the subject, the rejected suitors are often shown breaking their rods with expressions of envy and disgust. Joseph’s rod is usually shown in the form of a stalk of lilies-the lily being a symbol of purity and the flower most often associated with the Virgin Mary (see LILY under ANNUNCIATION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY).


Appleton, LeRoy H., and Stephen Bridges. Symbolism in Liturgical Art. New York: Scribner, 1959. Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. New York: Meridian Books, 1994. Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.


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