"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Big Red would yell in frustration when, as a kid, I had done something particularly dim-witted; and face it, oftentimes stuff I did as a youngster was considered dumb. Of course, I saw myself as clever, smart, and extremely witty. Others around me, however, when not considering that I was just another pretty face, believed I was as dim as a box of rocks, a tree stump, a sack of hammers, a Brillo pad. You get the picture.
I was raised in the Catholic religion, which was, even then, losing parishioners faster than a sinking ship. My family was intractable in its loyalty, and all the children were subjected to a fair amount of religious instruction, coming away with scars to prove it.
Be that as it may, picture a younger me mulling over the story of Jesus and Mary being ferried around by this guy, this carpenter, this fatherly figure to a savant savior child, born of a virgin—a man who, after the kid kicks moneylenders out of the temple, totally disappears from the gospels. Who is this guy? Where did he go?
Where did he come from? is more like the question. Some writings say that a man named Joseph was married to the virgin before she gave birth. Some recount a Joseph of Arimathea, purportedly Mary’s uncle, a disciple and spreader of the gospel into Britain. He is not the saint; he’s the guy who paid for the tomb to house the so-called dead body of the 33-year-old King of the Jews. I think it was the Joseph in the first instance who became the saint because he brought the mother and son through trials and tribulations and taught the kid how to use a hammer.
I grew up Catholic. We looked up to Saint Joseph. I was raised Italian; we celebrated Saint Joseph’s Day. I wound up in New Orleans where Catholic Italians, especially the Sicilians, would take a bullet for Saint Joe. Growing up, we couldn’t have explained St. Joe if our ice cream money depended on it. My question is still: Who is this guy?
Let’s go with what we know and what’s been told to us. Saint Joseph’s Day is March 19, every year. In New Orleans, we celebrate with altars of food and public meals. We make special dishes, savory and sweet. We essentially pay back St. Joe for all his blessings bestowed upon us during the year. March 19, payback time: the job we got, the school that our kid got accepted to, the pregnancy that did (or didn’t) happen, business deals, living arrangements, debts paid or forgiven, blood unshed. “Thank you, Saint Joseph. I will build an altar of food, donate it to the less fortunate, and invite strangers to eat at my table.” Churches, homes, and businesses participate. It’s during the Lenten season, so there are no red-blooded animals consumed.
Here’s what we’re told: Saint Joseph is the saint of the everyman, the patron of unwed mothers, a model for fathers, protector of children, keeper of secrets, married to that blessed mother (after she became preggo), and the one who gives us strength when we are sick and/or leaving this earthly coil. He is considered the legal (not spiritual) father of Jesus. Chief David Montana once explained to me why the Mardi Gras Indians came out on St. Joe’s Day: “Because he was black!” Take your pick. I’m only here for lunch.
Saint Joseph is considered patron of the universal church of Catholicism. The Sicilians believe that he saved them from starvation by giving them the fava bean, and some believe that if you want to sell your house, you plant a statue of St. Joseph, headfirst, in your backyard. I’m a fan and look forward to St. Joe’s Day for the cookies (sesame and fig), if nothing else.
Logistically, Saint Joseph and Saint Patrick days are March 19 and 17, respectively; there are not enough Italians or Irish in New Orleans to have enough participants to throw individual parades, so they combine them. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s my story. So, here come the two cultures parading: Irish giving potatoes and cabbages as gifts and Italians trading flowers for kisses. It’s a good day for Italians.
On March 19, I go to whatever Catholic church is nearby, and I am served, sometimes up to a dozen different morsels of lunch (of course, pasta rules) with lemonade and/or sweet tea; I’m as happy as a clam. I donate money, light candles, and generally feel part of the family of man (and woman), all in the name of this guy who heard God’s voice and did what he was told. I’d like to think that he held down the fort with the lovely Mary while “his son” went traveling for 18 years, preparing for his ministry and eventual execution.
Back to the day of lunch: Because I have greased the celebratory wheels, I’m given a little paper bag of goodies containing a prayer card, cookies, a blessed fava bean, and a slice of French bread. I bring that home (after eating the cookies) and place it on my home altar; I put the fava bean in my wallet to bring me luck and money during the next year. The significance of the bread has something to do with casting bread upon waters to calm them. Here, we believe that the bread is used to ward off hurricanes. That’s correct—when a storm is approaching, we take that slice of bread and throw it out our back window, and the tempest will pass us by. It works, too (but not for “outer bands”). For the sake of St. Joseph, we remember that we’re all part of the same tribe. At lunch, we say to ourselves, “Welcome home, and thank you, Joe.”