Saint Joseph, the third member of the Holy Family, is often over looked, possibly because of absence in the adult life and mission of his wife Mary’s son Jesus Christ. The Bible describes his presence in the life of Jesus as a child but he becomes a peripheral figure in his later life. The last time Saint Joseph appears in the New Testament is at the feast of the Passover in the temple when Jesus is 12 years old, and after that he disappears, he is neither present at the Wedding in Canna or the Passion at the end.
Saint Joseph’s obscure presence in the Bible hasn’t stopped Italian Catholics from offering their devotion to the carpenter, the wife of Mary, the adoptive father of Jesus, who gave his name to the child of the God. Across Italy the traditions associated with this saint vary, most likely to replace devotional practices to some pre-existing pagan god.
In Sicily and Salento the practice is to set the ‘Tavole di San Giuseppe’, or the ‘Table of Saint Joseph’. On the evening of the 18th of March, it is usual to set a table with pasta, vegetables, fresh fish, eggs, pastries, fruit and wine and to invite the poor into your home to eat. Homeless people are made welcome at the table, while three poor children are there to represent the Holy Family.
The food is consumed with devotional prayer while thirteen young girls representing the ‘thirteen virgins’, adorned with flowers in their hair recite poems in honour of Saint Joseph. Almost certainly a Catholicisation of a Roman feast, possibly of Jupiter himself. Sometimes whole quarters of villages are set up with wooden tables or alters and laid with food that is collected by donation from every household in the area, culminating in a grand feast for all in the neighbourhood. Traditionally the food associated with the festival are fried pancakes or donuts., known as ‘fritelle’ in Rome and Florence, ‘Zeppole‘, in Naples and Puglia, and ‘sfincie’ in Palermo. The recipe we have come to accept as the original, features in an 1837 Neapolitan cooking book by Ippolito Cavalcanti. They are typically circular in shape and are made with flour, sugar, eggs, butter, olive oil, custard, caster sugar and usually topped with black cherry. They can be fried or baked, and are a delicious, if slightly indulgent way to celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph, Father’s Day.
In the north of Italy fires are often lit in celebration, as a rite of the inauguration of Spring and in the Valley of the Trebbia river, between Emilia-Romagna and Liguria the Bonfires of Saint Joseph still exist extensively. An effigy representing winter is burned at the astronomical equinox at these bonfires, it is a remnant of the ancient pagan Celtic ritual that brought to the area by Irish-Celtic monks in the time of the Longobards, the sixth century BC. Indeed at Bobbio, the seat of the Irish Saint Columbanus and the order of monks that brought a new era of Christianity and learning to northern Italy, as well as Switzerland, France and Germany, in the 7th century, the tradition of burning bonfires, which the monks established as a way of merging Celtic and Christian traditions, so common place that on the evening of the 19th of March it is said that the whole countryside is blushed with a rosy hew in the night air, as each hilltop wears a crown of flame.
The practice can be found too in Itri, in the province of Latina, in Lazio, where up to two months before the feast, young boys are accompanied by adults into the woods to retrieve young oak saplings (a tree sacred to the Celts) that are dried and used as kindling for the bonfire. Until a decade ago the bonfires could be seen strewn around the province of Foggia in Puglia, until they were amalgamated into one large bonfire at the turn of the millennium. In the town of Serracapriola in Foggia, locasl collect branches from olive trees which they then use to in performing a daring competition of ‘jumping the bonfire’. The audience are served fritelle and wine while they watch the spectacle.
The ‘Fuocarone’ or ‘Great Fire of St. Joseph is also very ancient tradition in Villa Basilica (LU) in the tiny village of Guzzano. Weeks before the festival the men of the village venture into the forest in search of a pine tree with the right characteristics. The trunk is denuded of branches and then ‘planted’ in the town square, where it is used as a stake to build a towering bonfire as much as 5 metres high. While no specific food or drink is particular to the festival, it is a great chance for the community to socialise with the evenings that little bit longer coming into spring.