A few years ago, while working at a college library, I decorated one of the library's display cases in celebration of Saint Patrick's Day. It seemed like a good idea at the time, until one of my superiors, a person of intensely Sicilian-American heritage, snorted, "Where's Saint Joseph's display?"
If you have no idea what I'm talking about, Saint Patrick's Day is generally celebrated, particularly by those of Irish heritage, on March 17 every year. Saint Joseph's Day falls just two days later, on March 19 (most years), and Saint Joseph is particularly beloved amongst those of Italian descent, but also for the Spanish, Polish and other ethnic groups.
Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I felt fortunate because, while my family lacked a singular ethnic identity, we were so many things that we got to celebrate just about everything. My half-Irish mother loved the wearin' of the green, the eatin' of the corned beef and the green frosted donut and the general carryin' on that accompanied Saint Patrick's Day. My half-Polish (and more sensible) father encouraged us to wear red to honor Saint Joseph, and the parish church of my youth was dedicated to an Italian saint and the traditional Saint Joseph's Table was open to all.
Let's a get a few things straight. Saint Patrick was not Irish by birth, he was born and raised in Roman-occupied Great Britain (the area we now call Wales), kidnapped to Ireland, then he escaped and eventually returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary. Legend has it he banished snakes from Ireland - more likely, there were never any snakes there to begin with. Believe it or not, the color blue was first associated with Saint Patrick, but the Irish tradition of wearing green (often in the form of a shamrock on the lapel) to show Irish and/or Roman Catholic pride, seems to have overshadowed "Saint Patrick's Blue," at least in America. And many Protestant Irish wear orange on March 17 - just to make things more confusing. I am one hundred percent certain Saint Patrick never drank a green beer or sang that "Unicorn" song.
What about Saint Joseph? Well, even if you are not Christian, you may know of Saint Joseph being the husband of the Virgin Mary and what I guess one could call a "stepfather" to Jesus. He was definitely not Italian, nor Spanish or Polish, and seems to have lived his life in the area we now call Israel and Palestine, with time spent in exile in Egypt. The Irish love Patrick for bringing Christianity to their island, the Italians love Joseph for bringing rain, specifically rain that prevented a famine in Sicily during the Middle Ages. Hence the building of the "Saint Joseph's Table," an altar of praise brimming with good things to eat and drink, including the "zeppole," a donut-like concoction that resembles an Italian paczki (that's a "poonch-key" to the non-Polish speakers). Saint Joseph's Day celebrations take place from Chicago to New Orleans and in Spain, March 17 is Father's Day. I am one hundred percent certain Saint Joseph never even imagined a zeppole, much less ate one, and often wonder how he feels about being buried upside-down in so many peoples' backyards as they try to sell their homes.
For many of us, the traditions of Saint Patrick's and Saint Joseph's days hold deep religious significance, ethnic pride or just plain old fun. It is often said that "Everybody is Irish on Saint Patrick's Day," and if you've ever enjoyed a cannoli or zeppole, I'm sure you'd be happy to claim some temporary Italian heritage as well. Many think of these special feasts as being "Catholic" traditions, but both saints are important to the Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and other Christian denominations as well. And saints aren't limited to the Christian faith. So, enjoy this day of rest between the feasts of two great saints. Do you have a favorite saint, from any tradition? Feel free to share your story here.
Want to read up on the lives of the saints? See what books and other items we have available at the Des Plaines Public Library.
The Library has books and A-V materials on all kinds of religious traditions and perspectives. See the one-click searches below for a few examples:
Or, find books and movies that compare and contrast many religions: Religion One-Click Search.