Feasts of San Giuseppe in Sicily: the traditional Altars with Breads

Altare San Giuseppe

On the occasion of the feast of San Giuseppe in Sicily it is traditional to set up the Altars of San Giuseppe. These are altars made with veils, lights and objects aimed at representing local customs and traditions, full of dishes such as votive bread, pasta with sauces and crumbs, fruit, fried vegetables and sweets of all kinds. The main element of the altars of San Giuseppe are the Breads of San Giuseppe, made by Sicilian housewives, which are real bread sculptures. They reproduce figures of saints or are historiated with friezes and plant motifs. The only food that never appears on the altars of San Giuseppe is meat as the feast of San Giuseppe falls during the period of Lent and therefore of fasting from meat. The altar closes at the top with heaven,” that is, a drapery of wedding veils artfully arranged like a canopy, and an image of the Saint placed between the veils.
These altars they are set up by the faithful in their own homes and become a place of worship and prayer for the entire period in which remain visible, about a week. They are generally made by grace received, or by those who they turned to the Saint and received a grace.
Traditionally the Saturday before the week of the feast of San Giuseppe we proceed to the kneading and the creation of the traditional loaves, on Monday the priest blesses the place in which the altar and the loaves of St. Joseph are set up and starts the prayers and visits of the faithful. For all the week up to the day of the feast of St. Joseph, the faithful and curious gather around the altar every day the Rosary is recited and prayed together.
In front of the altar, the table of St. Joseph, large tables covered with white and embroidered tablecloths, on which the Saints or the virginieddi, i.e. three people representing the Holy Family, who will consume the ritual banquet, symbol of abundance. Traditionally this banquet is offered to the neediest people of the neighborhood and to the orphans of the village..

The preparation of the altars of San Giuseppe is a tradition that has been repeated for centuries and which has its roots in the pagan rites. This custom is in fact linked to the ancient myth of the the rape of Persephone. The legend tells that in ancient Trinacria there was a terrible period of famine due to the unhappiness of Demeter, protector of fertility of the earth. Demeter's unhappiness was due to the fact that Hades, God of the dead, had kidnapped her daughter Persephone. It is said that the Sicilians invoked all the other gods so that Hades would return Persephone to her mother e they promised to prepare grandiose altars in honor of Demeter, as a thank you for the awakening of nature on the Earth. Thus it was that the gods established that from that day Persephone would be with her mother on Earth for six months, and for six months with Hades, in the realm of the dead. The return of Persephone to earth thus brought about the awakening of nature, ed the Sicilians then prepared beautiful altars, covered with myrtle and laurel, where they hung small loaves with particular shapes that symbolized the long desired products of the earth.
Since then the tradition of preparing magnificent altars it is repeated every year in conjunction with the return of Persephone to her mother Demeter. Following the awakening of nature it was called Primavera and with the advent of Christianity the votive altar was dedicated to Saint Joseph. It was chosen to dedicate the altar to St. Joseph because his staff was the only one to bloom, an event which made him the guardian of the Holy Family.

The feast of San Giuseppe is also an opportunity to taste the Sicilian dishes and sweets dedicated to this feast. You may be interested in The Dishes and Desserts of the feast of San Giuseppe.

Here are the main feasts of San Giuseppe in Sicily where you can admire the traditional altars of San Giuseppe and attend the re-enactment of ancient rites such as the commemoration of the grain harvest, the entrance of the laurel, the procession of the virginiddi, the historical re-enactment of the flight into Egypt of the Holy Family...