Feast of St. Joseph
In Sicily, where Saint Joseph is regarded by many as their patron saint, and in many Italian-American communities, thanks are given to Saint Joseph (San Giuseppe in Italian). Giving food to the needy is a Saint Joseph's Day custom. In some communities it is traditional to wear red clothing and eat a Neapolitan pastry known as a zeppola (created in 1840 by Don Pasquale Pinatauro in Napoli) on Saint Joseph's Day. Maccu di San Giuseppe is a traditional Sicilian dish that consists of various ingredients and maccu that is prepared on this day. Maccu is a foodstuff and soup that dates to ancient times which is prepared with fava beans as a primary ingredient.
One prominent custom is the Saint Joseph's day altar, which has spread from Sicily to the United States in the 1800s. These altars are typically elaborate; being decorated with figurines, medals, and votive candles. The Saint Joseph's day altar is into three sections representing the three persons of the Trinity, and has a statue of Joseph at its head. The tables are dressed with food, which are donated to the poor on the solemnity. Upon a typical Saint Joseph's Day altar, people place flowers, limes, candles, wine, fava beans, specially prepared cakes, breads, and cookies (as well as other meatless dishes), and zeppole. Foods are traditionally served containing bread crumbs to represent saw dust since Joseph was a carpenter. Because the feast occurs during Lent, traditionally no meat was allowed on the celebration table. The altar usually has three tiers, to represent the Trinity.
According to legend, Saint Joseph interceded to relieve a famine in Sicily during the Middle Ages. There was a severe drought at the time, and the people prayed for their patron saint to bring them rain. They promised that if God answered their prayers through Joseph's intercession, they would prepare a large feast to honor him. The rain did come, and the people of Sicily prepared a large banquet for their patron saint. The fava bean was the crop which saved the population from starvation and is a traditional part of Saint Joseph's Day altars and traditions. On the Sicilian island of Lipari, the Saint Joseph legend is modified somewhat, and says that sailors returning from the mainland encountered a fierce storm that threatened to sink their boat. They prayed to Saint Joseph for deliverance, and when they were saved, they swore to honor the saint each year on his feast day.
Some villages like Avola used to burn wood and logs in squares on the day before Saint Joseph, as thanksgiving to the Saint. In Belmonte Mezzagno this is currently still performed every year, while people ritually shout invocations to the Saint in local Sicilian language. This is called "A Vampa di San Giuseppe" (the Saint Joseph's bonfire).
Spectacular celebrations are also held in Bagheria. Joseph is even celebrated twice a year, the second time being held especially for people from Bagheria who come back for summer vacation from other parts of Italy or abroad.
In Italy, 19 March is also Father's Day.
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August is a crazy month in Italy. For Italians, it is often the best month of the year - a time for vacation, family, friends and the beach. But it is also the height of tourist season, and hotel prices soar to 3 or even 4 times their usual rates while restaurants are reserved months in advance.
The reason for all this excitement centers around one particular day - August 15 or Ferragosto, when almost everyone in Italy takes a holiday. Second only to Christmas, Ferragosto is a day away from work, surrounded by food and loved ones.
Besides the singular day, the week around Ferragosto is usually celebrated as well, with concerts, outdoor festivals and tons of food. But, have you ever wondered why exactly Italians celebrate this seemingly random day in the middle of the hottest month of the year? Believe it or not, Ferragosto is an ancient tradition.
It dates from the year 18 BC when Emperor Augustus created a holiday, "Feriae Augusti" or "festivals of Augustus". On this day, he would organize horse races all across the Roman Empire and people everywhere had huge feasts and celebrated. Incredibly, these horse races have stuck around, as the second phase of the famous Palio in Siena, which is always held on August 16.
Besides its pagan roots, Catholicism also has a hand in Ferragosto, because August 15 is also Assumption Day, or the day when the Virgin Mary ascended to heaven. Many churches hold processions and feasts to honor the Blessed Mother.
Then in the 20th century, the 15th of August took a new turn when Mussolini, refusing to be outshone by the Virgin, organized discounted trains, calling them the, "people's trains of Ferragosto". For many Italians, it was the only vacation they took all year in which they could travel away from their hometowns and see other parts of Italy.
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Carnevale is an Italian tradition that is celebrated prior to the start of Lent. It translates "Farewell to meat". There are many meat and elaborate dishes as well as decadant traditional desserts! There are beautiful costumes adorned at feasts, parades, and parties. The traditions vary from region to region. Here are some videos that demonstrate how to make some of the delicious desserts!
La Befana has been flying around the world on her tattered broomstick to swoop down chimneys and deliver sweet or sooty judgment on girls and boys long before Kris Kringle.The witch has been in the Italian tradition at least since the eighth century, as part of the Epiphany.
In Italy, the Epiphany marks the official end of the Christmas season, commemorating the day when the three Wise Men arrived at the manger bearing gifts. Every year, the occasion is celebrated with living nativity scenes, a great procession through the city center, and - most exciting for the sweet tooths among us - the arrival of La Befana.
According to the story, the four figures' fates were intertwined when the Magi happened upon La Befana early on during their quest. She charitably hosted them for an evening in her humble but cozy cottage; the next morning, they invited her to accompany them to Bethlehem. Busy cleaning her home, La Befana declined at first - but then, after they carried on their way - she had second thoughts. She quickly filled a basket with gifts for the baby Jesus and set off alone. Although she followed the same star, she was unable to find the manger before the Wise Men did on January 6, the Epiphany.
Today, La Befana continues to travel the world on Epiphany Eve, searching every house for the child and leaving candies and chocolates for the good children - just coal for the bad - in her wake.
Click on this link to hear the story of La Befana as retold by author Tommy DePaola. Play it for your children and grandchildren. Enjoy!