New York Daily News

St. Joseph’s day of joy and food

- BY ANTONIO PAGLIARULO zeppole Pagliarulo is the author of “The Evil Eye: The History, Mystery and Magic of the Quiet Curse,” due out in May.

Like many Italian-Americans, my fondest childhood memories include fragrant foods, loud social gatherings, and the Catholic saints who bring them together. With la Festa di San Giuseppe, the feast of St. Joseph on March 19, tomorrow, that opportunit­y comes to life.

Outsiders who happen upon New York’s Italian neighborho­ods will find a festive mix of street traffic and delectable treats. Statues of St. Joseph, very much a celebrity to us, are displayed prominentl­y on front lawns and in storefront windows.

To mark this day, my family and neighbors would gather at a local Bronx parish to participat­e in la procession­e — the procession — carrying an icon of St. Joseph through the streets, singing hymns and reciting the rosary. When we reached the church steps, the crowds broke into raucous praise. If you’ve seen the depiction in “The Godfather Part II” of the procession for St. Rocco, this will be familiar.

No Italian feast is complete without food, and St. Joseph is honored with culinary delights. Bakeries make zeppole, deepfried shells of dough stuffed with custard or cannoli cream and topped with a cherry. Sfinge ,a similarly delectable fritter, are filled with ricotta cheese. Dried orange rinds and chocolate chips are sometimes added to imbue the day with extra sweetness. These pastries are set alongside pane di San Giuseppe, the bread of St. Joseph. The loaves are baked in the shape of crosses and staffs, hearts and crowns — symbolizin­g a kind of sacred nourishmen­t. Eating, for Italians, after all, is a ritual that borders on the sacred.

According to legend, it was good old-fashioned prayer that gave birth to this feast day. The nuns who educated me told tales of a drought that ravaged Sicily in the 1600s. Desperate, Sicilians beseeched St. Joseph for a miracle. Then came the rain, bringing new life to barren fields. What followed was a party of mammoth proportion­s and Sicilians built huge, colorful altars to thank St. Joseph.

Devotion to him does not end there. St. Joseph is the patron of laborers, carpenters, fathers, the unemployed, expectant mothers, families, immigrants, and travelers. Declared patron of the Universal Church in 1870, the Americas, Canada, Belgium, Croatia, the Philippine­s, and Indonesia, among others, claim him as their patron. The causes for which he intercedes are numerous, including selling homes and ensuring a happy death.

In fact, there’s little St. Joseph can’t do.

A close friend struggling to find work said a novena, a prayer typically recited for nine consecutiv­e days, to St. Joseph and swiftly got a job offer. A cousin summons St. Joseph whenever she’s hunting for a parking spot. That burst pipe in the basement? Call out to St. Joseph, as the home is his spiritual jurisdicti­on.

Despite his popularity, we know little about St. Joseph other than what’s in scripture. Born in Bethlehem of a royal Jewish lineage, he lived a simple life as a carpenter. As the cornerston­e of the Holy Family, he served as a protector to Mary and a mentor to the young Jesus, and likely died before Jesus entered public ministry. In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph is referred to as “a righteous man.”

But it isn’t St. Joseph’s spiritual identity that makes him a role model for today — it’s from his human character that we draw our greatest lessons. We see a man who discovered the woman he married was pregnant with someone else’s child but chose to stay by her side. We see a man who left everything he knew and fled to a strange land to keep his family safe. We see a man who looked into the eyes of his stepson and recognized his own capacity to love unconditio­nally.

Joseph’s life was nothing less than a portrait of courage. Not because he closed his eyes to what was going on around him and still got the job done, but because he faced unfathomab­le circumstan­ces and acted with compassion. When we peel away the centuries of feast days and miracles, we find a man who understood the frailty of the mortal heart but embraced the divine power of the immortal soul.

At a time of mounting disasters, social upheaval, and deep partisan divides, St. Joseph offers our society ways to rise above despair and doubt and help those in need. With his refreshing take on humanity, he urges us to model humility and empathy and embrace the transcende­nt power of seeing the divine in all of us. If that isn’t deserving of a feast day — and a

— I don’t know what is.

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