Group observances are important, but personal, individual observances are, perhaps more important. One of the traditions involved with putting on a table is the idea of begging for either money, supplies, or services to put on the Table. Individual participants may fulfill a personal promise to the saint by their donation of foods, wine, bread or time for cooking.
This individualization of the custom is described in some detail in Folklore of American Holidays. The article is by Ida M. Santini of Detroit, a student of folklore at Wayne State University, and it describes Joseph's Table as she saw it done in her grandmother's home in childhood.
The celebration required extensive preparation. The whole house, every piece of furniture and bric-a-brac, every window and curtain and doily, must be thoroughly cleaned and renovated with painting, polishing and scrubbing. Then the table was set up in the front parlor, and on it a starched, elaborately embroidered white linen cloth. As a girl, she (the grandmother, clarification mine) had woven this herself, and then devoted countless additional hours embellishing it with intricate cut work embroidery learned at the convent school. Statuettes of saints, large and small -- all that she could borrow, besides her own, were arranged on the table with vases of realistic artificial flowers she had fashioned herself...Using the best table and chinaware she could obtain, she set three places at the table, which she further decorated with festoons of bright ribbons. (pg.144)
This writer went on to tell about the seemingly endless specially-shaped loaves of bread her grandmother got a from the bakery. In contradiction to most of the writing about St. Joseph's table this eye witness reported her grandmother preparing chicken and veal in various ways. She also reports the customs -- common among the various groups, of the pageant to find shelter and the three "saints" whose job is to represent all the poor. There are the customs of offering the saints the food first, the customs of the saints eating to their fill before anyone else eats, and variations on the theme of money raised going to the people who play the parts of the saints or to a charity supported by a club or restaurant that is sponsoring a Table. Another custom that is universal is that of having everything, altar, Table, food blessed before the Table is "broken" or opened for feasting.
St. Joseph's Day has also been the subject of research by people of what seems, widely disparate viewpoints. In "Giving an altar" The Ideology of Reproduction in a St. Joseph's Day Feast, in the Journal of American Folklore: 1996: Kay Turner and Suzanne Seriff, apply a feminist interpretation to St. Joseph's Table or Altar.
The St. Joseph's Altar tradition -- dating back to the 16th century in Sicily -- continues to be celebrated in Sicilian-American enclaves in Texas, Louisiana, California, and elsewhere. San Giuseppi, patron of the family, the poor, the widowed, the orphans, is honored through the creation of elaborate -- literally floor to ceiling -- altars composed primarily of food and traditionally dedicated and displayed in the home. It is the female head of household who "gives" the altar...This woman-centered altar tradition provides a splendid case in point for understanding folklore practices and performance through a feminist orientation.
What feminist theory brings to the interpretation of women's lore is a commitment to understanding lore as it arises from and promotes a woman-centered ideology...one that we call an ideology of reproduction. (447)
They go on to explain that they are not using the term reproduction in a "Marxist sense" but in a sense derived from feminist scholars. The authors make the claim that, "These feminists have effectively reclaimed reproduction as an ideological sphere separate from production. They asserted that the potential for reproduction is as maternal practice, including pregnancy, birthing, child-rearing and family nurturance."
This article goes on to discuss St. Joseph's Altar/Table in terms of women expressing power as.." social development of human capacities, rather then in terms of conquest and domination."
The authors contend that St. Joseph's Altar is a "woman-centered" celebration because -- as far as can be determined -- women make all the decisions and do all the work. It might be expected that the difference between this festival and everyday life is the fact that women actually are recognized for what they are doing. They further contend that there is some feminist significance to the fact that the men play not only a secondary role, but a nurturing (the feeding of the Holy Family) one as well.
In the Journal of American Folklore (1998), Diane Christian, a former nun and a documentary filmmaker, takes considerable issue with the arguments in this article. She opened her own article with:
As a former sister of St. Joseph and as a documentary filmmaker who has analyzed women's choice of religious life, I turned with interest to the article in the folklore and Feminism issue of JAF on women's role in a St. Joseph's Day celebration (Kay Turner and Suzanne Seriff, " 'Giving an Altar': The Ideology of Reproduction in a St. Joseph's Day Feast," JAF 398:446-460. The article, alas, reminds me of Blake's critique of Swedenborg in TheMarriage of Heaven and Hell: "Now hear a plain fact; Swedenborg has not written one new truth: Now hear another: he has written all the old falsehoods."
In the article, entitled, "Not One New Truth and All the Old Falsehoods," Christian points out that we mustn't forget that everything about St. Joseph's day is in celebration of a male saint. She goes on to give the opinion that:
even Mary's maternity is a male miracle. Her life-giving power is subordinated to her son and her nurturing power is subordinated to her husband. Joseph's true paternity in the religious tradition is centered on his nurturing of the Child; he is the patron of the family. To ignore this reorganization of female power into male is to miss the religious presentation of the ideal feminine as subordinated, as renouncing self and power for handmaidenly service. This is not just a status or hierarchical question, it is the prototype of female virtue.(101)
These very erudite discussions, while possibly thought-provoking, will not likely make any difference to either St. Joseph or his adherents, female or male. It is entirely possible that most people who enjoy and take part in St. Joseph's Table would, after wading through the feminist arguments on both sides, consider both articles silly and completely missing the point of the whole celebration. It isn't even that faith is not amenable to this kind of dissection. Faith doesn't care. Do the people who make the promises, and put on the feasts care who is in charge? Are they concerned about making sociological statements? Probably not. They probably wouldn't care even if they knew they were doing such an academic-sounding thing. It is more likely that the people who offer St. Joseph's Table enjoy what they are doing, enjoy the sense of community this ceremony brings to them and the people who partake of it. It would also seem that they enjoy the further sense of satisfaction they achieve by helping the folks who re-create the Holy Family. Then there is ability to help some charity that the free-will offering affords. There is a strong possibility that many people enjoy the tradition of the celebration. Our world moves so fast. There is so little that seems to stay around. Our cars, our televisions, our computers -- everything it seems -- is obsolete almost before we get the sales contract signed or cashier gets us checked out. There is something so very, very comforting about a custom that has been around for some 500 years. It has changed and grown true, but the underlying form remains to give some sense of roots and stability.
Whatever the charm of this custom might be for any given individual, the fact is that what was, basically, a Sicilian custom to begin with, has spread far beyond the bounds of that relatively small group. That should speak to theconcept of some universal idea that lets many different groups feel good about themselves and how they conduct their lives.
Chaba, Louis and Marge -- telephone interview April 9, 2004
Author unknown. "Saint Joseph's Table 2003." http//:francisanhackensack.tripod.com/sjhist.html (4-9-2004)
Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed.
Christian, Diane. "Not One New Truth and all the Old Falsehoods" Journal of American Folklore vol. 101-1988: 53-55
LaSalle parish adopts St. Joseph's Table tradition." Catholic Post March 17, 2002 http/ / www.cdop.org/catholic_post/post_3_17_02/news.cfm (4-9-2004)
Polish Easter Traditions*St. Joseph's Day/Dzien Sw. Jozefa, March 19
Pastor's letter, pg. 5, online church bulletin for the Church of St. Joachim. http://www.stjoachimchurch.org/3_04__01%20Bulletin.htm
Piatkowski, Nancy. "The St. Joseph's Table" Buffalolore.buffalonet.org. Retrieved March 2004 (http://buffalolore.buffalonet.org/stjoseph/stjoseph.htm)
Raspa, Richard. "Italian-Americans" American Folklore Jan. 1996
Shurgin, Ann, and Griffin Robert. Ed. The Folklore of…