The St. Joseph's Altar is a Sicilian tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. Sicily is a rocky island with erratic weather conditions which brought either droughts or torrential rains. The Sicilians' mere existence was a daily struggle. A lengthy famine seized the island and the dry, cracked earth yielded no life giving crops. The starving farmers had only their deep faith remaining. They prayed to St. Joseph, the patron saint of Italy, to intercede to God for them.
Their prayers were answered as gentle rains fell to fill dry wells and streams and gave birth to crops. Even coastal fishermen pulled in abundant catches where there had been no fish. These poor farmers and fishermen wanted to pay homage to St. Joseph for answering their prayers. Since their very being was dependent on a fruitful harvest and the yield from the sea, they decided to offer these, their most valuable possessions to St. Joseph. An altar was constructed and foods that were common became elaborately decorated feasts for the eye as well as the palate.
Even though at times it was a great sacrifice, the tradition continued as a labor of love and devotion on the feast day of St. Joseph, March 19th. At first the altars were erected in family homes, usually in thanksgiving for favors granted, such as deliverance from the ravages of war or the healing of body or spirit of a loved one. When the Sicilians emigrated to the United States over a century ago, they brought this custom with them. These altars flourished in the New Orleans areas where the tradition continues today.