Bonfires, dances and ancient Salentine ceremonies
St. Joseph is one of the most revered saints in Italy, and is celebrated between the 18th and 19th of March, almost everywhere along the Italian peninsula. The further south you go, however, the celebrations become livelier and more welcoming, with magnificent, bright celebrations, full of the delicious aromas of food.
The Feast of St. Joseph is characterized by fires, either bonfires, fireworks or both, symbolizing the new light of spring rising from the ashes of winter, and delicious fluffy cakes called zeppole. These are prepared slightly differently in different regions. In Puglia they are similar to doughnuts, usually fried (or baked), very soft, and decorated with custard and a black cherry.
But, the further south you go, the more traditional the celebration becomes.
In Salento it has survived for centuries as a special custom in honour of St. Joseph. Every year, in towns such as Giurdignano, Uggiano la Chiesa, Cocumola, Minervino di Lecce, Giuggianello and San Cassiano, the locals prepare so-called Tavole di San Giuseppe (Tables of St. Joseph).
The custom most likely dates back to the Middle Ages, when the celebration was an opportunity for the town’s poor to eat at a banquet. Nowadays those that sit at the tables are friends of the host family, even large families and those of low income.
Tradition dictates that a table of around 40 metres long be prepared, around which sit the Holy Family, played by the host family, with ten saints, played by the guests. On the feast day after mass the saints/guests go directly to the house they are expected to attend, a little later a priest comes for the blessing, after which the guests begin lunch. Tradition dictates that it is up to the host, playing the part of St. Joseph, to mark the transition from one course to the next, by tapping the edge of his plate with his fork three times. At this signal all of the guests must stop eating and move on to the next course.
Even the dishes were established by tradition, such as: pasta and chickpeas, the whiteness symbolizing the lily; fried fish, an icon of Jesus Christ; cauliflower representing St. Joseph’s staff; cartellate honey cakes representing the swaddling clothes of the Baby Jesus.
Even if you are not invited to the tables of St. Joseph, dear visitors, there are still plenty of events to enjoy on this great occasion: there will be lights to brighten up the town, stands with local delicacies, the Saint’s procession and bonfires, and again, pop music concerts: come and admire the essence of the South in all its glory.