One of the best things I experienced in southeastern Sicily were the festivals of Saint Joseph, held in different towns on various days around March 19, his traditional feast day and Father’s Day in Italy. I took part in the festivities in three places: seaside village Donnalucata and the nearby towns of Scicli and Santa Croce Camerina.
St. Joseph’s Day is particularly significant in Sicily, where he is seen by many as their patron saint. This can be linked back to a legend claiming that Joseph, husband of Mary, intervened to prevent a famine in the Middle Ages. During a severe drought, people prayed to St. Joseph for rain and promised they would hold a feast day if he answered their prayers. When the rain did come, they prepared a large banquet for the saint, and people believe this is the origin of the modern day festivities. When you are touring southeastern Sicily, you will see statues and pictures of him on many churches and buildings, such as Palazzo Beneventano in Scicli, below.
On my first night in Sicily, I headed to the coastal town of Donnalucata. My friends had heard there was also a cuttlefish festival on that evening, along with a cavalcade procession to celebrate St. Joseph. We started off the day wandering around market stalls in the town and we walked along the pier, where we could look back over the town and watch the sun set.
After this we headed to the cuttlefish markets, where there were all sorts of dishes on offer, including fried fish and the Sicilian “arancini”, stuffed rice balls covered with breadcrumbs and fried.
I opted for a cuttlefish arancino and it was delicious! We were drawn back for seconds of fried fish, and one of my friends chose a large pie stuffed with cuttlefish.
Like in other towns, the trappings and saddles of the horses at Donnalucata were adorned with decorative images, mainly of the “Holy Family” of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, portraying their escape to Egypt. These were made out of seasonal flowers, here’s an example:
The next place we headed for the festival of St. Joseph was Scicli, which held its procession a week later. Here the event was a much larger affair. The evening began with some dancing and a general gathering and parades in the centre of town, before the fancier costumes were revealed.
Up at the Church of San Giuseppe in Scicli, a Mass was being held before people dressed as Joseph, Mary and Jesus led the more official procession through the town. I thought it was quite poignant that the priest giving the service in the church was highlighting current persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Northern Africa. He linked it back to the Flight into Egypt that Sicily remembers on this day, when Joseph and Mary fled Bethlehem after being warned that King Herod planned to kill all infants in the area.
The costumes on show in Scicli were incredible, each one seeming more elaborate and detailed than the last. Here are just a few examples:
And here is a video from the procession:
Later on, the people of the town lit their traditional falò fires, which stem back to a pagan rite meant to symbolise the passage from winter to spring.
This picture above shows the main fire and barbecue of the parish, but other people were also lighting fires, and cooking meat on their own grills in the street.
The final festival of San Giuseppe that we attended was in Santa Croce Camerina. Here we firstly visited the statue of St. Joseph in the town’s main church, then watched brass bands perform in the square in front of it.
After 5pm, the statue of St. Joseph was paraded around the streets, as people handed donations over to help the poor, in memory of how St. Joseph saved people from famine in medieval times. Here’s a photo and video of the procession:
March is a great time to visit this area of Sicily. Not only do you enjoy the wonderful history and architecture, but you can also take part in these exciting local traditions and festivals, and enjoy all the delicious food connected with them. These include broad beans, which saved people from starvation in the legend of the festival. I skipped on the zeppole of St. Joseph, deep fried dough balls filled with things like ricotta or cream, as I had already eaten too much, but perhaps you will want to indulge! Enjoy!