Saints For All Things

In Italy there is of course a plethora of saints. Some one never heard of, some invented like Santa Perduta (Lost Saint), celebrated in Orvieto with music by local groups and picnics of roast pig and wine. One might even think of it as a pagan festival. Throughout the centuries the pagan gods were gradually replaced by their Christian equivalents, the saints. A church for the Virgin Mary might very well be located on the site of a temple to Diana. Wherever you go, whatever your needs, there will be a saint you can call on. In February you can ask Saint Blaise to save you from throat ailments by having two candles crossed over your neck, accompanied by a special prayer. St Apollonia is for toothaches, and St. Lucy for your eyes. St Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, St. Roch is a plague saint. St. Anthony will help you find lost things.  St. Joseph can be turned to for any number of things, including healing and various categories of assistance.

Even if the smaller towns originally have or had Communist mayors, they still have their patron saints. Take Orvieto. Years ago it always had its Communist government but that didn’t mean it shouldn’t celebrate its patron saint. A worker saint, a carpenter, like Saint Joseph. There’s a small church in his honor right off Via del Duomo, sponsored in the 17th century by the Carpenters Confraternity. The simple façade is marked by a portal leading into an octagonal interior and has been cited as being Baroque. Generally unnoticed is the overpass to the palazzo across the street on the left permitting the noble Gualterio family to participate in services from the privacy of their home.

Nowadays St Joseph also seems to have a companion in St. Patrick and festivities include them both. St. Patrick’s Well was called one of the lions of Orvieto by the 19th century traveler George Dennis in his marvelous book on the Cities and cemeteries of Etruria.  For St. Patrick’s Day the Wellis now being lit up inside in bright green in the saint’s honor. But how the well got its name is another story.

In Italy March 19th is also Father’s Day and not only a celebration of Saint Joseph.  I suppose one can consider Joseph a surrogate father for Jesus. In the US fathers are honored on June 17th, although it didn’t become a national holiday till 1972, with Pres. Richard Nixon.

Some connect Father’s Day with the ancient Roman feast of March 17th when boys, having attained the age of 16, were initiated in a ceremony on the Aventine and were then considered adults. Gifts offered the god included fried sweets, and bonfires were lit, signifying the end of winter. On the 19th you may still see bonfires dotting the dark hills across the valley from Orvieto.

Adopting the American holidays often merges with preceding customs. For carnival you’ll find princesses and medieval knights (50 years ago my sons flaunted black Zorro capes I had whipped up on a recently bought foot pedal sewing machine) roaming the streets, tossing confetti at passers-by, while their mothers and grandmothers are busy at home frying pastry “cenci” or rags. Halloween has also been adopted with skeletons and witches but for the Italians it coincides with the equivalent of Memorial Day and falls on All Saints Day and the day of the dead when you pay homage to your departed loved ones. As with St. Joseph, there’s also a specific sweet – the fave dei morti – almond cookies in the shape of fava beans. Pellegrino Artusi, the author of the first real Italian cookbook, will give you the recipe of fava beans for the dead, and also tell you what fava beans have to do with the deceased. Evidently for the Romans, and even the Egyptians, black fava beans were linked to the Underworld. Artusi’s book, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, was a blockbuster when it came out. Even now I love reading his recipes and his advice to the more delicate ladies as to what foods they should avoid. These almond cookies can only be found at that time of year. It’s sort of like Easter eggs – ever tried finding one in July?

But to get back to St. Joseph, whose statue is waiting to be returned to its usual place in his little church after an excursion to the Duomo for a special mass. The band marches along the street after which the traditional rice fritters are distributed.

Or they might be cream puffs, either filled with custard or with ricotta tinted pink with alkermes. Since they are made only for St Joseph’s Day, you had best get them now or you’ll have to wait till next year. Whether you’re celebrating Father’s Day or San Giuseppe.

4 thoughts on “Saints For All Things

  1. I like the thought that St Joseph is honoured with his own cakes as well as a band, a promenade (would that be the right term?), a Day and a dedicated church. When I was a boy I used to feel sorry for Joseph. He seemed to be neglected in the stories and to fade away completely after the accounts of Jesus’s childhood. The honour paid to Mary I could readily understand.


  2. As always I learned many things from this post. I’m sorry to be missing the custard-filled or “ricotta tinted pink with alkermes” cream puffs, but maybe some day…

    BTW, I had to look up Alchermes, “a classic Italian liqueur, full-bodied, rich in spicy aromas and with hints of citrus…used for centuries for the preparation of homemade desserts. During the Renaissance, it was the favorite liqueur at the Medici’s house in Florence.” I’d like to try that, too.


  3. Erika, this is so interesting! Things i didn’t know, or knew incompletely, about ovieto. Santa perduta i had entirely missed, which, i guess, is fitting. When is her feast? Sounds perfect to me, porchetta and wine…. Thanks for your encouragement re my creakiness, by the way. I did a lot less today— but this seems a key time for weeding, the things come up so easily this early in the spring. Earlier in the day we stopped at cerquitelli, where i found borragine and a couple of interesting timi, as well as santoreggia, to fill in holes in the garden and some specific spots where i need borragine. Will check with carl and propose a date for lunch — we have a lot to catch up on! Love, margaret


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