Fruit has long been a symbol of abundance and the harvest. But depending on your ethnicity and where you live, specific kinds of fruit symbolize different things. Take the lemon, for example. In the United States, most people associate this bright yellow fruit with something bitter or bad. We all know the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade (although it should be ‘Limoncello,’ in my opinion).” And if you buy a car that breaks down a lot, you call it “a lemon.”
But in most Catholic cultures, the lemon is a symbol of love and fidelity, which may explain a bizarre tradition in the Italian-American community. What is this tradition? Brace yourselves, girls. Legend has it that a single woman looking to find a husband should steal a lemon from a St. Joseph’s Day altar. If—and only if—she successfully takes the lemon when no one is looking, then she will be engaged or even married by the following Saint Joseph’s Day.
Now, I’m sure that the marriage-minded among you are thinking, “Where can I find this amazing altar?” Well, because St. Joseph, a.k.a. San Giuseppe, is the patron saint of Sicily (in addition to being the adoptive father of Jesus), Sicilian-American communities in the U.S. create these altars on his feast day, March 19, to feed the poor. The two largest and most famous celebrations of St. Joseph’s Day take place in New Orleans and New York.
Meanwhile, I’ll bet that this unabashed lemon thievery has some of you are wondering, “Whatever happened to ‘thou shalt not steal’?” After all, this is a Catholic tradition. The answer to that question is, in Italian-American speak, “Fuhgeddaboudit.” Everyone knows that all is fair in love and war—even if it means stealing a lemon from a Catholic altar devoted to Jesus’s dad and intended to feed the hungry.
So, whatever your plans come March 19, I feel obliged to warn you about another legend associated with the St. Joseph’s Day altar. Many believe that you will get pregnant if you steal a lemon from this altar, which is QUITE a bit different than landing yourself a man. With this information in mind, if you still want to bear the risk (get it? “bear”?) and steal a lemon from the altar, then at least try not to take a lemon lemon.
NOTE: The above picture of the lemons, which are at least three times the size of the oranges, was taken in Sorrento, Italy. How would you like to try to steal one of those babies unnoticed?