In America March 19 is always celebrated as Saint Joseph’s Day. (Saint Joseph was the symbolic, but not birth, father of Jesus.) In Italy March 19 is also celebrated as Father’s Day. My Grandmother Theresa taught me the customs of the Italian celebration of this Christian Feast Day.
Saint Joseph’s Day always falls during Lent, so the food served on this
day never has meat, and the food that is served represents the harvest
so no cheese is served. Therefore, the pasta which is traditionally
served is sprinkled with bread crumbs rather than cheese.
I remember Grandma asking me on one Feast Day if I knew why bread crumbs
were used on the food, instead of another non-cheese seasoning
“No, Grandmacita,” I answered wonderingly.
“Because the bread crumbs symbolize the sawdust Saint Joseph –and Jesus
would-- create when they sawed wood to make furniture for their
customers in Nazareth,” she smiled.
Saint Joseph was also chosen the patron saint of Italy. One year, I
think in the Middle Ages, there was a terrible drought in the country
and people fervently prayed to him to save their crops and restore the
virtually empty water wells. In an almost-mystical response to the
ardent pleas of the devout peasants, massive rain showers soaked the
parched land. Like Saint Joseph, Saint Patrick became the patron saint
of Ireland when he was said to have driven out all the snakes in the
Grandma Theresa taught me to always wear red on Saint Joseph’s Day.
Italians wear red on that feast day in the similar religious-based
tradition that the Irish wear green on Saint Patrick’s Day!
There is another wonderful custom that my Grandmother faithfully
practiced and passed down to me: If you pray to Saint Joseph and he
answers your prayers, you must thank him by preparing a feast in his
honor and asking others to eat from a table we call a “Saint Joseph’s
Traditionally, the grateful petitioner then opened their front door and
hung out a red flag so that anyone could enter their home and eat at the
Table until they were satisfied. For obvious reasons, at 7244 S.
Prairie Avenue, only invited guests were able to dine at the Saint
This Feast Day was the one time my family members could invite
acquaintances outside the family to come and eat. There were no chairs
placed at the table. Diners would take a plate, fill it and, after
eating, put the plate in the kitchen and leave. Then Grandma, Aunt Maffy
and I would wash the dishes and place them back on the table for the
“What are we celebrating this year, Grandmacita?” I asked her one year.
“We are celebrating that your Uncle Al is getting stronger and healthier
every day,“ she replied solemnly. “I have said nine novenas for him”,
The nine novenas leading up to Saint Joseph’s Day is another custom. A
novena is a special prayer that you would say over and over during the
day for nine successive days. Each day you said a different prayer.
Each year I went to Saint Philip Neri parochial school on Saint Joseph’s
Day wearing a red ribbon pinned to my blue uniform, and that was before
ribbons were in! Other children would ask me why I wore the red ribbon
and I would tell them it was because I was Italian and it was St.
Joseph’s Feast Day. I was the only Italian in my class. They also knew I
was a Capone, so I think they believed that meant something sinister.
One year our oldest son Kevin had to have open heart surgery when he was
seven and, due to post-surgery complications, spent a couple of weeks
in intensive care in Children’s Memorial Hospital. In the next bed to
our son was a beautiful infant boy, named Victor, whose parents
virtually lived in the parents lounge with us during that time.
We leaned on each other for support. When my son would have a setback,
their son rallied and vice versa. Their relatives, her sister and
brother-in-law, would often bring home-made dago red wine to help us
We were allowed to visit Kevin for only 5 minutes every two hours. Late
one night as we approached his bed in intensive care, we saw doctors and
nurses frantically working over him. He was hemorrhaging. They wouldn’t
let us near him and pushed us back out of the room. A few minutes later
we saw one of the doctors leaving.
“Is our son Kevin alright?”
“He’s still breathing.” He replied coldly in his east Indian accent. Then he turned and walked away.
We couldn’t get any answers from anyone, so I called our pediatrician
who said he would check and call us back. About 30 minutes later he
called to inform us that Kevin was now out of danger.
Victor’s parents were very religious. So they did a novena to Saint
Joseph and promised a Saint Joseph’s Table in celebration. Customarily,
three persons represent The Holy Family at the Saint Joseph Table. (The
parents knew I was Italian, but I never told them
of my heritage while we were together in the hospital.)
A few years later the wife called me long distance, we had since moved
away from Chicago, and said,“ Deirdre, I would like you to come to my
home and represent the Virgin Mary at the St. Joseph’s table we are
having to celebrate Victor’s recovery.
On that day, I said to her, “My Grandma taught me the custom of a Saint
Joseph Table as a young girl and we did have people play the roles of
the Holy Family. Thank you for having me be such an important part in
the celebration of the answer to your prayers for your son, Victor.”
I flew into Chicago on March 19th and drove to their home.
The table in their dining room was decorated as I remember my Grandma
decorating her table. There were the traditional breads and sweet
raviolis. People began arriving in the late afternoon. There were so
many happy people and Victor himself played the baby Jesus.
As the celebration began to wind down Victor’s mother approached me.
“Deirdre, you never told me what your maiden name was”, she said.
“Capone, as in ‘Al Capone’”, I smiled. “He was my uncle.”
I never heard from those people again