Sunday, April 25, 2010

Books and St. Joseph's Table

Welcome to a Family Tradition!

Today I want to introduce some of you to a long held tradition in some Sicilian-American families: the Feast of St. Joseph. Now, I'm not a Catholic, but this has never stopped me from entertaining or being entertained on such a holiday. St. Joseph's Day falls not far from its more popular step-sibling, St. Patrick's Day, on March 19th. There is a great and rich history behind this saintly day. According to a mix of legend and Church history, at some point during the middle ages (or simply, "A long, long time ago..."), there had been a serious drought. St. Joseph (San Giuseppe) had been asked to intercede and prevent famine, which had been caused by a harsh lack of rain and low crop yields. Those who know or who've been to southern Italy and Sicily will know then that it is a ruggedly arid place, with little or no rain most of the time.

After the people had asked St. Joseph to intercede and stop the drought, the rain finally came. The crop which had help to stave off a major famine was the fava bean. So, to this very day, when you go to a St. Joseph's day festival, you will be given a little red bag (red is the color of the day, and you will see many people wearing it!) in which you will find some fava beans and a little necklace piece with the image of a saint on it--usually the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). In the picture here, one will see two of these little red bags and some "Keep This Coupon" tickets, which were part of the annual raffle. In the past, we've won some sort of holiday gift: a candle with a saint on it, a basket of fruits, or some other treat. Or my all time favorite: a fine 17-inch, hand-crafted statue of the great San Giuseppe himself!

Now one question for some of you is: "so you're not Catholic--then why do you go to a Saint's Day celebration at a Catholic Church?" That's a good question. It actually starts in some way with the celebration itself. Half of my family comes from Sicily. They mostly came over in the 1950s, including my father and grandparents. This was one of the key holidays they celebrated in Sicily. So when they came to the United States, their community, which had been transplanted to northern New Jersey, started a club for their hometown in Sicily--the Santa Croce Camerina club. Every year, when I was growing up, we attended the celebrations of the St. Joseph's Table, which included a big ritual of visiting a church hall or maybe even some hall in the Santa Croce club, with a great stage--this was the bountiful table of St. Joseph. It looked like a magnificent altar, and was decorated with candles, statues, and a whole spread of baked goods, which commemorated the salvation from famine.

In New Jersey, the event was quite sizable, and the table's baked good ranged from zeppole (cream-puff treats) to spinach pies to the most gigantic homemade breads, knotted and braided into life-preserver rings, and implanted with hard-boiled eggs and parsley. I recall some of these breads being as large as the lid of a garbage can or even a circular table-top. And I always wondered "what kind of stove did they have to bake such a large loaf!" Toward the end of the event, there would always be some sort of auction or raffle--as there's been at the church in Little Italy in Chicago, Our Lady of Pompeii, where I've gone for the past few years. In New Jersey, though, it was an over-the-top event, which ended up becoming a "show-fest" of how much more money you could spend on a spinach pie than the next guy. In truth, it was not uncommon for someone to bid $100, $200, or even $500 for some baked good!

Coming from an immigrant family and culture myself, we might recognize the need and desire to make money and do better than the opportunities offered in the country of origin. My family worked in factories here in the US after they arrived. They saved their money and spent frugally. But when it came to holidays, feast days, and special occasions, it was all show and ostentation. All the stops were pulled. One could speculate with some degree of accuracy about why so many 1st, 2nd, and even 3rd generation Italians and other immigrant groups in New Jersey and greater New York area have such lavish parties, and especially weddings: it is a remnant of the old saints days. You work, work, work, and have little, but when it comes time to celebrate, you celebrate in style, to forget for a short moment in your days and lives that you're working so hard. Parties for 50th birthdays, 25th anniversaries, "Sweet 16", and weddings are extremely ornate, and cost big bucks.

A distant cousin, who was married not too long ago, had a wedding that cost ~$200 a plate. Most people I know can't afford this. But the murmuring family members all spoke about how much more they did than another cousin...whose wedding might have cost a mere $150 a plate! So it is with examples like this that we see the contrasts and perhaps paradoxes of envy and awe, desire and disregard. Each immigrant family is made to be in awe of such materiality, made to be surprised, but with such they are also reminded of their own short-comings and lack of wealth; or at least, comparable wealth. But this should not derail or downplay the value of the St. Joseph's Table. Even though many in my family no longer attend their annual saints day celebration, because of this ostentation (partly, because one extremely wealthy patron buys up most of the goods and ultimately turns off the rest of the community), I still find some renewed interest in its culturality.

My brother and I used to joke about an incident we witnessed at one San Giuseppe event many years ago, in New Jersey. Part of the St. Joseph's day celebration includes the parading of the statue of St. Joseph from the local Catholic church to the assembly hall where the Table is located. On one such occasion, the procession was led by a Gucci-wearing priest named Gino, whose charm and style seemed to outweigh his spiritual direction. Following him and his attendants was an octet of burly Sicilian men, clean shaven, in grey and black double-breasted suits. The eight of them were carrying this massive 6-foot statue of St. Joseph on some beams across their shoulders. They walked haltingly and with some trouble. The statue must have been extremely heavy, as the veins of these men were popping along bright red and perspiration-beading foreheads.

As they went to maneuver into the assembly area where the St. Joseph's Table was, they could not open the double door. One, two, three of them stopped and bent over to unlock the clamp at the base of the door. Only after a few minutes did someone realize that there was a lock at the top of the door that needed to be undone! At which point, my brother turned to me and joked "How many Sicilians does it take to open a door?" The answer was: "Eight...and one St. Joseph." So, that was the image I had always emblazoned in my mind for this holiday. In was a bit different. A few years after I'd first come to Chicago, I'd somehow come across some information about a St. Joseph's Table and celebration. It was at a church in the old Little Italy, just off Taylor Street. So, I found the church and attended the mass, before queuing up in line for the buffet-style luncheon. At the end of the service, there was a procession of congregants to the assembly hall where the table was. But unlike the bulky middle-aged Sicilians carrying a 2-ton statue of St. Joseph, it was a line of 4 or 5 young girls dressed finely in deep red sweaters, no older than 10 or 11, carrying several little statuettes of St. Joseph! What a surprise! And what a difference!

At first I thought, "I'm being cheated of the real experience of the day!" But the fact is, it was simply another version of St. Joseph's day and his bountiful table. I'd been used to a family and community tradition, where the entirety of that community back in New Jersey was actually from Sicily. People were still speaking in dialect at functions held at the club there. The culture of Sicily was still very alive. Here in Chicago, it's hard to say if anyone was Sicilian, though many were certainly Italian. Several were of southern Italian stock, but very few spoke any Italic language or dialect, at least that I discerned. Last year I met an old Italian man from Calabria. He spoke Italian, and only Italian! No English. So I practiced a little and spoke to him in Italian. In the handful of years I've now attended, it seems as if the community is largely Italian-American, but maybe 3rd or 4th generation, with a few exceptions. The church seems to also be diversifying and has a community of Filipino and Hispanic families, among others. So, this year, I made a few more friends. My family and I got to the event on time, but had to wait in line for an hour. But that was okay, because the church folks brought out slices of freshly baked pizza and plastic cups full of rosé wine. I sipped the sweet wine in the cool air, talked to people, and looked at the pigeons congregating around the front of the church. Inside, I went down the line of the buffet collecting a pile of home-cooked white fish, spaghetti, greens and potatoes, and the necessary hard roll. It was loud and chaotic, but fun and enjoyable. We ate some sweet Sicilian treats, had some coffee, and talked the afternoon away, while the auction went on. We didn't win anything this year. And that was fine too. It was simply pleasant to partake in an event like this again.

Quietly, in the back corner of the hall, where the St. Joseph's Table was set up, there was a counter and display case full of books: yes! Books and St. Joseph. Most were about saints and such. There were a whole bunch about Padre Pio on the other side, which I didn't photograph. I don't think anyone was reading this day. They...we were all too consumed with the treats, the wine, and of course, the music. And that's how the afternoon ended, with kids, adults, and the old folks dancing to the classy tunes of 1950s and 60s Italo-Americana. Who doesn't love that! Well, nothing says tradition like an old Italian crooner, belting out the best in the Italian-American vocal medley to the delight of a young child in the shadow of fava beans, sugar cookies, and St. Joseph. God bless 'em all!