Christian Traditions 018: St. Joseph’s Day

Von Trapp Follow-Along: Maria makes no mention of this event.


St. Joseph’s Day is a feast day that commemorates the husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus. It is far more recent in origin than most major saints’ days, and gained popularity among Italian/Sicilian and Polish immigrants to the U.S., holding the same importance to them that St. Patrick’s Day does to the Irish.


Red. In Italian/Sicilian and Polish communities within the U.S., the wearing of red is as traditional on this day as is the wearing of green on St. Patrick’s Day. (See Footnote 1.)


Fava Bean. In the Middle Ages, legend holds that there was a severe drought in Sicily and that the people prayed that Joseph would send them rain, promising that in return, they would prepare a large feast to honor him. The rain came, and the Sicilians prepared a feast in his honor and made him their patron saint. The crop which saved the population from starvation was the fava bean, and so the fava bean is now traditionally added to the St. Joseph’s Day meal.

Hollyhock. St. Joseph is also associated with the hollyhock, a flower from China which was introduced to the Holy Land by travelers on the Silk Road.

Carpentry Tools and Saw Dust. For obvious reasons.

19 March 2015WHEN IS IT?

St. Joseph’s Day is held 19 March every year; this year, that’s Thursday. If it falls on a Sunday other than Palm Sunday, it’s observed the next available day (usually Monday 20 March) unless another feast falls on that day. In 2006, an additional rule was added (and has been observed since 2008) that if St. Joseph’s Day falls within Holy Week (the week prior to Easter Sunday), it is moved to the closest possible day before 19 March, which is usually the Saturday before Holy Week. In Italy and Spain, 19 March is also Father’s Day.

stjosWHAT IS IT?

This event commemorates Joseph, the husband of Mary and, by extension, stepfather and foster father of Jesus. Because Joseph was given the responsibility to protect and care for Jesus (and Mary), he is considered the patron and protector of the entire Church. His day has been celebrated in the Western church since at least the 900s AD and was established in Rome by 1479 AD. Today, St. Joseph’s Day is a feast day. However, it was a solemnity until 1955 (see Footnote 2).

As we know from Scripture, Joseph was a carpenter (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3) who descended from Bethlehem. As told in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, Joseph was betrothed to Mary, and upon finding out she was pregnant, he decided to quietly divorce her so as not to make a spectacle of her or put her at risk of death as a punishment for adultery. However, an angel told Joseph that Mary was pregnant by the power of the Holy Ghost and that she carried the Messiah. Joseph then married her but did not sleep with her until after she had given birth to Jesus (Matthew 1:24-25). Because he was descended from Bethlehem, he had to take a very pregnant Mary with him to Bethlehem to be registered for taxes, wherein Jesus was born. Joseph also took Jesus and Mary to the Temple in Jerusalem for their ritual presentation and purification, respectively (see my post about Candlemas for more information). When King Herod sought to kill Jesus, Joseph took his family to Egypt under the command of an angel to wait until it was safe to return. After Herod died, Joseph again moved his family under the command of an angel, this time back to Israel. However, upon their arrival, he learned that Herod’s son, who was just as evil as Herod, now reigned in Israel, so—again, upon the instruction of God—he moved to Galilee and settled in a city called Nazareth. Joseph took his family to Jerusalem every year at the Passover and, the year Jesus was 12 years old, he and Mary discovered on their way back that they had accidentally left Him in Jerusalem. Although Joseph’s words to Jesus upon finding Him are not recorded (only Mary’s are), he was apparently just as worried as was Mary, according to her words, “…Son, why have you dealt with us this way? Your father and I sought you anxiously.” (Luke 2:48) If we are to take Mary’s words literally, it seems that Joseph considered himself as much Jesus’ father as Mary was His mother, and loved Him as his own child. Joseph and Mary had at least six other children after Jesus (see Footnote 3), but Joseph is not otherwise mentioned except as the father of Jesus (e.g., Matthew 13:55). The Scripture implies that Mary was a widow at the time of Jesus’ death (John 19:26-27), but the exact time of Joseph’s death is not mentioned. Although Scripture references to Joseph are few, we see a picture of him as a very merciful, understanding, and loving man; a man who put God first; a protector; and a good father and husband.

feastofstjosephpaintingBecause St. Joseph’s Day falls within Lent, the meals on this day are traditionally meatless. A food traditionally added to St. Joseph’s Day meals in Italy and Sicily or Italian and Sicilian communities is the fava bean, as discussed above regarding the legend of famine and salvation from starvation by fava bean. Because of this legend, it is also traditional to give food to the needy on this day. Foods are also traditionally served containing bread crumbs to represent saw dust since Joseph was a carpenter. Other foods traditionally eaten on this day include a Neapolitan pastry called zeppola/zeppole, Maccu di San Giuseppe (which is primarily maccu, a soup dating back to ancient times wherein fava beans are the primary ingredient), and Sfinge di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s Cream Puffs).

Because New Orleans, Louisiana (USA) was a major port city for Sicilian immigrants in the late 1800s, St. Joseph’s Day is an important event in the city. As in other countries, an altar is often prepared in honor of the saint, where the people of the church contribute food items like a potluck. However, the food from the altars in New Orleans is generally given to charity after the altar is dismantled—that is, the churchgoers don’t eat it—in contrast to most other locales, where the churchgoers eat the meal together. The altar or table is decorated with many symbolic items, such as carpentry tools. After the eating is done, the altar is smashed and three children dressed as the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary, and Jesus) perform a re-enactment called “Tupa, Tupa” (“Knock, Knock”). In this re-enactment, the three children go knocking on three doors asking for shelter. They are refused at the first two and welcomed at the third. This re-enactment is held in commemoration of the Holy Family’s seeking hospitality in Bethlehem before Jesus’ birth. At the end of the day, participants take home a bag filled with various gifts (bread, fruit, pastries, cookies, a blessed fava bean, a medal of St. Joseph, etc.).

Another tradition is for children to give gifts to their fathers on this day.


Another event commemorating Joseph, Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker, occurs on 1 May. It is discussed in Footnote 1. Because it is such a minor observance, I don’t think there will be a blog post on it.


Most of the traditional activities involve food.

  • Readings. Read the story of Joseph in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2.
  • Fashion (Recent Traditional). Wear red.
  • Food (Traditional). Several traditional recipes can be found at Fish Eaters. In general, any Italian/Sicilian food and some Polish foods are traditional for St. Joseph’s Day.
  • Joseph’s Table (Traditional). As discussed above, both churches and private homes would set up a table with various traditional foods and have a feast. In some churches, the food would be donated to charity, though most churches ate the food as a potluck. Traditional décor for the table included symbols associated with Joseph (such as carpentry tools and a statue of Joseph). You may do this at home or host a potluck in your church. The following prayer said over St. Joseph’s Table is traditional. It’s a little Catholic (it refers to a saint praying for us, which is not supported by Scripture), but you may adapt it if you are Evangelical.
    • “All-provident God, the good things that grace this table remind us of Your many good gifts. Bless this food, and may the prayers of St. Joseph who provided bread for Your Son and good for the poor sustain us and all our brothers and sisters on our journey toward Your heavenly kingdom. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
  • Skit (Traditional). The “Tupa, Tupa” skit, described above, is traditionally performed in church by three children dressed as Joseph, Mary, and Jesus on this day. If you have children in your family, small group, or church, consider re-enacting this skit.
  • Charity (Traditional). As discussed above, it is traditional on this day to donate food to charity. You may consider donated canned goods to the local charitable food pantry or even hosting a dinner for the homeless at your church.
  • Goody Bag (Recent Traditional). As discussed above, when the church celebrates St. Joseph’s Day with a potluck dinner, after the event, participants take home a bag filled with various gifts (bread, fruit, pastries, cookies, a blessed fava bean, a medal of St. Joseph, etc.). If you are celebrating in a family with children or in a small group or church setting, consider creating goody bags.


You may create any of the items traditionally associated with Joseph. As discussed above, these include the fava bean (which looks like a string bean in the pod or just a plain green-colored bean out of the pod), the hollyhock flower, or carpentry tools. Most of these patterns will have to be significantly adjusted for size.

  • Knitting Patterns.
    • “Tiny Bean” by Tokkyu2222 (here) (note: knit it in green, like the fava bean)
    • “Stuffed String Beans” by Kim Engelmann (here) (note: although these are technically string beans, they have the appearance of a fava bean in the pod)
  • Crochet Patterns.
    • “Green Bean Amigurumi” by Jessica Evans (here) (note: although this is technically a green bean, it has the same appearance of a fava bean in the pod)
    • “Glam up Your Hexipuff – Hollyhock” by minja (here) (note: this pattern will have to be significantly altered for size if you do only the flower)
    • “Hammer” by Myshelle Cole (here)





Footnote 1: Red as the Color of St. Joseph’s Day. In my research on this topic, I mostly found people asking the same question—“why do Italians [or Polish] wear red on St. Joseph’s Day?”—and others trying to answer but not fully answering the question.

One explanation seemed to be a slight confusion of the Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker with St. Joseph’s Day. The best I could piece together was that 1 May was the national holiday of the Communist Party in Italy, called “May Day” or “Festa Del Lavoro” (basically, “Labor Day”). On this day, some people wore red for communism. However, Pope Pius XII added a celebration of “San Giuseppe Lavoratore” (“St. Joseph the Worker”) on the same day in 1955. His stated reason for doing so was to accentuate the dignity of labor and to bring a spiritual dimension to labor unions, which is completely contrary to others’ claims that he created the observance to contrast communism. In fact, previous popes (most notably Pope Leo XIII in 1891 and Pope Pius XI in 1931) specifically decried harsh conditions in the industrial workplace and exploitation of workers. I could not find information on how red came to be associated with the 19 March commemoration of St. Joseph’s Day in accordance with this explanation—in fact, when giving this explanation, the authors usually falsely claim that Italians and Polish do not wear red on St. Joseph’s Day at all—so I think it may not be the true reason for the association of red with St. Joseph’s Day (19 March), though it offers a good explanation for the association of red with the Memorial of St. Joseph the Worker (1 May).

Another explanation for the association of red with St. Joseph’s Day (19 March) that makes more sense to me involves the interplay of Italian and Polish immigrants to America with the more established Irish Catholic immigrants in the 1890s-1930s. The Italian and Polish immigrants found themselves in a new land where Catholic dioceses were mostly run by Irish immigrants and people of Irish descent, who looked down on Southern and Eastern European Catholics. The Italians and Polish felt unwelcome and judged, and mostly ended up creating their own culturally-specific parishes and religious societies. In Chicago, the two groups expressed their disagreement most vividly. In this city, St. Patrick’s Day (17 March) was very visibly celebrated with such demonstrations as a massive parade and turning the Chicago River green. In multi-ethnic Catholic schools, kids of Irish heritage demonstrated their Irish pride with “the wearing of the green” on this day. Therefore, probably mostly if not entirely in reaction to St. Patrick’s Day, St. Joseph’s Day (19 March, just two days after St. Patrick’s Day) became more important to the Polish and Italian communities. Both national flags of Poland and Italy have red, which contrasts very sharply to the Irish green, and so Polish and Italian Americans took this day to celebrate their patron saint and their cultural heritages with “the wearing of the red,” especially among kids in Catholic schools. Simultaneously, many Polish traditions were adopted by the Italians, and many Sicilian and Italian traditions were adopted by the Polish. Eventually, many of these Italian/Sicilian and Polish traditions were adopted by the Catholic Church of Chicago as a whole. You can read the historical account plus some traditional activities for this day here.

Footnote 2: St. Joseph’s Day as a Solemnity. This day was once considered a solemnity, which is the highest ranking level of liturgical commemoration and commemorates an event in the life of Jesus or Mary or celebrates a saint who is important to all Christianity or to a local community. (That is, a celebration of a particular saint may be a memorial or a feast in the world in general but a solemnity in the area for which that saint was especially important, such as Saint Patrick’s Day, which is a feast day around the world but a solemnity in Ireland.) For examples Evangelicals would understand, other solemnities include Christmas and Easter. When a solemnity falls on a Sunday (except in Advent, Lent, or Eastertide), it supersedes the Sunday itself—that is, it is celebrated in place of the Sunday. However, because St. Joseph’s Day falls within Lent, if it fell on a Sunday, it would be moved to another day.

Footnote 3: Joseph and Mary’s Other Children. In other places in Scripture, we find that Jesus had siblings, presumably younger siblings (since older siblings are not mentioned in the accounts of His birth) who were therefore the children of Joseph and Mary. For example, in Mark 6:3 (and also Matthew 13:55-56), the people in the synagogue who heard Him preaching questioned, “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joseph, and of Jude, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?…” (In Matthew 13:55, He is referred to as “the son of the carpenter.”) This demonstrates that Joseph and Mary had at least six children after Jesus, the four sons named in this verse plus at least two sisters. Other passages also refer in passing to His siblings, only once more by name (see Mark 3:31-35, John 7:3-10, Acts 1:14, and Galatians 1:19). Further evidence in support of this idea is that the oldest son is given the father’s name where later sons may get the grandfather’s name; however, the oldest of Jesus’ four brothers is named James, after his grandfather (Joseph’s father), rather than being named after his father (Joseph), as was typical for firstborn sons.

The word used to describe Jesus’ siblings is adelphos, which originally comes from a-delphys (“of the same womb”) but came to mean people born to the same parents, extended family, and brethren in the wider sense of a community. Nevertheless, the earliest scholars (and many modern scholars as well) agreed that the most natural inference is that they were the children of Mary and Joseph born after Jesus, and this view was accepted by Christian writers from as early as the first and second centuries. In fact, the Greek word adelphos (“brother,” as described above) is distinct from the Greek word for “cousin” (anepsios), and both were used carefully by a second-century Christian writer named Hegesippus to distinguish between Jesus’ cousins and His brothers.

However, beginning in the 3rd century, a new doctrine arose suggesting that Mary was always a virgin (contrary to Matthew 1:24-25, which says Joseph didn’t have sex with her until after Jesus was born—in other words, pretty plainly stating that they started having sex after Jesus’ birth), and if true, that would make it impossible for Mary to have had other children. Therefore, certain groups (primarily the Catholic Church and a few Protestant churches) which hold to the theological construct of Sacred Tradition (see my earlier post on that topic) reject the possibility that these children were Joseph and Mary’s natural children and engage in all sorts of mental gymnastics to explain where they came from, most often insisting that they were His cousins (a view, as described above, that was very specifically rejected by the earliest Christian scholars) or that they were Joseph’s children from a previous marriage (which, as stated above, does not explain why this rather large family of six children was not mentioned at all in the records of the events surrounding Jesus’ conception and birth).


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