It’s Time for Some Zeppole: Happy Saint Joseph’s Day

By Chris Tremoglie

March 19 is Saint Joseph’s Day (La Festa di San Giuseppe), widely celebrated in Europe and, traditionally, the Italian American population in the United States. The feast celebrates the life of Joseph, who was the carpenter who raised Jesus Christ with his wife, Mary. Given his roles as father and carpenter in the Bible, Saint Joseph is the patron saint of fatherhood and workers.

Additionally, Saint Joseph is the patron saint of Sicily. This is so because, according to legend, there was a major drought in Sicily during the Middle Ages. The Sicilians prayed for their patron saint to bring them rain. In return, if God “answered their prayers through Joseph’s intercession,” a large feast would be prepared in his honor. The rain eventually did come, and the people of Sicily prepared a large banquet for him.

Another Sicilian legend, originating from the island of Lipari, has it that a group of sailors encountered a very bad storm while on the seas. The sailors prayed to Saint Joseph to survive the storm, and when they were saved, subsequently swore to honor him each year on his feast day.

Saint Joseph’s Day, in America and Italy, features delicious Italian pastries such as the Neapolitan zeppole and the Sicilian sfingi.

IAMLA display of a traditional St. Joseph’s Table

Other Italian customs include the wearing of red (Czechs do this as well); creating a Saint Joseph’s Day table consisting of foods. Sicilians make a fava bean paste for their pasta called pasta maccu. The fava bean was the only nourishment for Sicilians during a drought in the Middle Ages. The people asked for the intercession of Sicily’s patron saint St. Joseph to end the drought. The fava bean, the crop that saved the Sicilian from starvation, has become a traditional Saint Joseph’s Day food.

Many Sicilian Americans hold a parade on the Saturday nearest Saint Joseph’s Day. This is a big tradition in New Orleans — a major port of entry for Sicilian immigrants who legally entered the country in the 19th century. Here, a Saint Joseph’s Day parade features many of the customs imported from the old country — including one about taking a lemon from Saint Joseph’s Day table. This custom claims that a single woman who takes such a lemon will increase her chances of finding a husband.

Perhaps the best part of the St. Joseph’s Day is the zeppole. Loosely translated as baked or fried donuts or fritters with fillings such as cream or custard and topped with powdered sugar and a cherry, this treat has become a staple of the Italian American community’s Saint Joseph’s Day celebration. If you are one of the unfortunate souls who have not enjoyed this delicacy, go to your nearest Italian bakery as soon as possible. (Saint Joseph says calories don’t count on this day.)

But the day is not only for Italians. Polish people also observe Saint Joseph’s Day. Many American towns with Polish-American populations celebrate the day with Italian-American residents. The holiday is also observed in Switzerland.

So join the tradition on March 19, don something red, grab a delicious zeppole (or two or three) from your nearest Italian bakery, eat some fava beans, and celebrate Saint Joseph.

Chris Tremoglie is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania where he is pursuing a double major in Political Science and Russian and Eastern European Studies. @chris_tremoglie

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