St. Joseph altars are as beloved a tradition in New Orleans as you can get, and whether or not you are a fan of the saint, you really haven't lived in New Orleans unless you have attended one of these beautiful tributes.
For Sicilian immigrants, New Orleans was a prime destination at the end of the nineteenth century, and when they arrived, they brought with them all the color and traditions for which they are famed. Sicilian-Americans are famous, among other things, for their love of, and presentation of, food. Perhaps this is due to the fact that at one time, they were on the brink of starvation because of drought in their native country. They turned in prayer to St. Joseph, and soon, the rains came, the crops grew, and the people were saved. To thank their patron, they gave him back the gift they were given, in the form of a feast laid on an "altar."
New Orleans Style:
In New Orleans, many people make their own altars because of special devotion to the saint, in fulfillment of promises made and favors granted. Friends of mine have held such altars to thank St. Joseph for cures from illnesses, for safe journeys, and for safe pregnancies. They are held in private homes and garages, halls, churches, Italian restaurants, and even (in other years) at the Piazza d'Italia. Although this is mainly an Italian-American tradition, some African-American churches have incorporated these altars into their traditions.
The altar features three tiers, representing the Trinity. A statue of St. Joseph presides on the top level, surrounded by candles, flowers, and of course, food. Breads in various shapes are placed at intervals on the altar, some in the religious forms of crucifixes, lambs, hearts, etc. Some breads are shaped like icons of the coming spring, such as Easter eggs, birds, or flowers. Other symbols decorate the altar, including breadcrumbs ("sawdust" to honor the carpenter saint), 12 cooked fish (representing the miracle of the loaves and fishes), and numerous other foods. The altar is meatless, probably because it is held in the Lenten season. Italian cookies, notably fig cookies, are the favorite treat given to the visitor.
A charming tradition is at the opening of the altar, when children enact the roles of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, sitting at a table and eating from the altar. No one else eats until the children are finished. The food is then distributed to anyone who wants a plate, and it consists of traditional dishes such as stuffed artichokes, fish, pasta, etc. If any food is remaining when the altar is closed, it is distributed to the poor.
Lucky Beans and Blessed Bread:
Fava beans, used as fodder for cattle in Sicily, were consumed by the starving inhabitants prior to St. Joseph's intervention. They are now featured on every altar, as blessed "lucky beans." If you keep one, you will always have money, or so the saying goes. Equally as important is the piece of St. Joseph's bread you will receive in your souvenir package. You put the bread in your freezer, and it is generally held that if you throw a piece of the bread outside your door during a storm, your house will be protected. You can believe we will all be getting our blessed bread this year!
St. Joseph's Day celebrations are usually capped off by the (of course) parade, featuring the Italian-American Marching Band rolling through the streets of the French Quarter. Hat's off to the Red, Green, and Yellow! This being New Orleans, St. Patrick's Day celebrations often mix with St. Joseph's Day celebrations.