There's rosemary, that's for remembrance.
William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

St. Joe

March 19th is St. Joseph's Day....a big celebratory day in the Italian Catholic least it was when I was a kid. We lived in a middle class neighborhood in California that was filled with Italian families young and old. While I didn't know as a kid the reason for the day, as an adult I figured it was to honor the head of the family, fatherhood and the sanctity of marriage...I think!

St. Joseph's Day was also the day the swallows traditionally returned to Capistrano......more about that in a future post.

St. Joseph's Day was not an official Catholic holiday, but it was a day off from school. I looked forward to it every year.
My mom spent the days before the holiday baking like crazy....Italian cookies, cakes, canoles, sandwiches filled with cream cheese, tuna, pistachios and olives, and rum balls.....I loved every single thing she made and was her official taster.

The celebration was held at the family home of one of the older church parishioners...Italians of course. The night of the 18th was spent setting up the table. A room was cleared and folding chairs set all around the table and throughout the house. Plates, silverware (no plastic here), glasses, cloth napkins and various serving pieces were set out. The kitchen was a flurry of old Italian women all dressed in black dresses with their cotton stockings and black tie up shoes. It seemed to me as a kid all of these women were overweight, wore no bras, and had husbands that were male copies but with heavier mustaches..... black suits, black shoes and starched white shirts. The kitchen conversations were a mixture of Italian sprinkled with fractured English words and it was loud and intense.......hurry, hurry, hurry, get this done, that done, fix this, take that, get the kids out of the kitchen.

The younger families were the set up crew and I had the task every year of setting up the chairs; low end of the food chain there. The primo child assignment was the day of the feast; carrying in the Lamb......a cake cut and formed into a sitting lamb (no cake molds in those days) with white frosting and covered with coconut. The cake was made by a "selected" family....through some secret Italian ritual. The lamb was put in the middle of the table and was surrounded by all of the yummies. The local parish priest blessed the table and the food was passed out first to all of the old folks sitting around the table, then to the other families.

While my mother was a 100%-verified-card-carrying Italian, my dad was not and therefore neither was I. I had a German last name; I was a blond/brown haired, fair skinned, light eyed, skinny kid with frizzy hair. I was the Italian afterthought in the St. Joe group.

My babysitter was Mrs. Guidera. I never knew her first was Mrs. I loved her, she loved me. She was the grandmother I had been denied by miles and death. She bought me gifts...nothing large...a pencil with an eraser, plain sketch paper, carbon paper, a stamp set. She was the "newest" old woman in the St. Joe group but eventually the St. Joseph's table rotated through her house. The big surprise that year? My mother was given the honor of baking the lamb. I remember her making extra cakes in case she didn't get the lamb quite right....spare part supply. I got to put the eyes on the lamb...two of the biggest chocolate drops I have ever seen.

This particular feast day I was dressed in my usual mother was a frill freak where I was concerned...lace, bows, ruffles, hair tamed and curled with rags, white socks and black patten shoes with grosgrain ribbon bows...yep, I was decked out but not unusually so.
The lamb cake was put in the trunk of the car in a special box along with all of the other treats and we were off to Mrs. Guidera's. As soon as we arrived I was shuffled into the living room and told by my mother to behave myself, sit still and stay clean. UmmHmm. I joined the rest of the kids and hid under the table, slid across the hardwood floor and acted like.....a kid at a party. Eventually my mother came and got me with her usual really angry-at-me-grab to my upper arm with the whisper in my ear..."You are in big trouble little girl. You just wait until we get home."

Of course I carried the lamb that year with dirt on my knees and the hem of my dress and one sock sucked into the heel of my shoe......I was nervous, worried I would drop the cake plate because my arms weren't long enough to reach the middle of the table. But, Mrs. Guidera was there to help and I finally felt a part of something special as an Italian kid. Just a sweet memory...I miss some parts of my childhood.


Dan said...

Wow! My grandmother (we were all raised Roman Catholic) used to bake this lamb every year as well. It was something we all looked forward to.

Thanks for bringing back some really sweet memories!

jp said...

Raised catholic, catholic grade school, and even our parish was "St. Josephs" but I never heard of this holiday. Wish I had; it sounds great.

Thanks for the education!

Sandy said...

What wonderful memories - and I'm sure Mrs. Guidera is smiling!

jan said...

I've never heard of St. Joseph's Day. What charming customs and great memories.

kenju said...

What a nice story! The cake is cute too.

gina said...

My grandmother, Josephine Amaroso Filippi, was born on St. Joseph's Day (hence the name Josephine). Living in Southern California, it was an easy trek to San Juan Capistrano to see the swallows return - one she made annually for years. I don't know if she ever did the lamb cake - they weren't practicing Catholics - but we didn't often see her to celebrate her birthday, so I wouldn't know for sure. I'll have to ask Dad.

Middle Child said...

WE alkways had St Joseph's day...went to a primary school - St Josephs Aberdeen (NSW Australia) and the St Joseph's Lochinvar (NSW) till I ran away to home...

on the top of each page in rimary school we had to neatlt inscribe " JMJ""Jesus Mary and Joseph"

forgot about all of that