Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Kindness Of Joseph - A Legend - 15th Window

While I was researching items for this Advent Calendar I came across a legend which people in the lowlands of Northwest Europe, between the two big rivers, the Meuse and the Rhine, told about St. Joseph, that unassuming, almost invisible figure, who was the husband of the Virgin Mary.  Hundreds of years ago, during long, dark winter nights, when they sat by the flickering light of peat fires creating restless shadows on the walls of their huts they told stories; stories which had been handed down through the generations and were accepted as truth.

One of these was a rather endearing story about Joseph's kind heart and presence of mind. We know that he was a carpenter and must therefore have a been a practical man, a man who knew how to solve practical problems; or so my forebears, the earthbound, simple peasants of the wide lands between the two big rivers believed.

The story they told was about the Nativity and the baby Jesus in his crib in the cold and draughty stable. They lived in a land which was bitterly cold at this time of year, the days were short; life was hard in the unforgiving icy winds which blew unhindered over the plains and they therefore assumed that the conditions in Bethlehem must have been similar. When babies feel the cold, they cry. It was the most natural thing for them to see the child's discomfort as something to wring the heart of a kind man like Joseph and for him to do something to alleviate the suffering.

The legend says that Joseph took off his long woollen stockings. He unrolled them and carefully cut them into lengths that would serve as swaddling clothes for the baby crying with cold and the discomfort it must feel sleeping in a crib lined with nothing but straw and hay.

This story must have made a deep impression on the poor, put-upon peasants whose own hardship was so great. They knew deprivation and poverty too well not to be touched by a story telling of kindness.

The legend was widely held to be true in the 14th and 15th Century not only by the common people but also by painters and poets of the time. The two most famous representations showing Joseph cutting up 'his hose' are by two Flemish painters, in particular Rogier van der Weyden (ca. 1460) and Melchior Broederlam (ca. 1390). Both show Joseph in the left hand corner of the painting holding the long woollen stockings. There are several poems referring to Joseph's act of kindness in old German,  one by Bruder Hans (15th Century) still exists in its entirety.

During the Reformation the legend lost its potency; perhaps the story wasn't 'holy' enough or too un-biblical. But it couldn't do away with it completely: among the items kept in the sacred shrines at  Aachen Cathedral pilgrims still come to visit 'Joseph's Hose' today.


  1. I can't tell you how much time I have now spent trawling the internet for information about Joseph! You see I have conflicting ideas about his age and just as many references have him as an old man as have him being relatively young.
    Joseph was a family name in my husbands family (good Irish Catholics that they were/are)so it was interesting for me to find out today that his saints day changes each year (just like Easter!)

  2. What a wonderful legend! There is so much tenderness attached to it! Thank you! Cathy

  3. friko - what a cool discovery! i have to say that i haven't given much thought to jospeh's almost walk-on role but really he had to have been there for everyting. he had to have suffered and laughed. we need more about him really. steven

  4. In today's political climate, many people wouldn't be comfortable with the notion that Joseph even wore hose.
    Friko, another fantastic story. You are going to need a holiday when you finish with Christmas.

  5. This legend is new to me, and while I doubt that he wore long woolen stockings, I have no doubt to the true kindness of his heart. I can appreciate how this story became legend, because Jesus told stories -- parables -- using people and props that the listeners would recognize and understand. This story, this legend, is the same sort of parable; it helped those who told it and those who heard it understand the kindness and tenderness of this man Joseph.
    Thank you, Friko!

  6. i can see where that legend would speak to those who have little...and it also rings of the love jesus carried forward...

  7. Perfect reading to start the day!

  8. I love this little story Friko - true or legend it doesn't matter - it's the act of kindness that shines through.

  9. I've not heard that legend, so that you for a great story.

    I hate to sound like a bah-humbug Scrooge, but as I read it, I was thinking .... when a woman is expecting a child, she usually goes into the "nesting mode," and she spend a considerable amount of time "laying in" the necessities for the time following the birth. I would think that when Mary and Joseph set off on their journey, they would have prepared for the event by taking along the things that might have been necessary. Surely, in that cold bitter climate, they would have had warm blankets of wool to protect the baby! And surely, babies were nested close to the mother's body, both of them wrapped in warm coverings.

    I know, I know! I've taken the beauty of the story and I should be flogged. sigh. Sorry! It's still a great tale.

  10. nun merke ich erst recht, wie schlecht mein Religionsunterricht damals war... Schön und interessant, Deine Fensterchen zu öffnen!

  11. I hadn't heard of this Germanic embellishment to the story, Friko - but it's one that is touching. An act of kindness and practicality.

  12. I also had not heard of this. You are unearthing so many wonderful things in this series. The series would make a lovely gift book, seems to me. ( is a great website for making books, FYI. They come out beautifully.)

  13. I have always believed Joseph was a special guy. I can imagine what most men would say if they came home from work one day and their wife said, "I have been made pregnant by a angel." Sure, right, tell me another one. I love your tale about Joseph, who in my mind is just like my old grandfather. Thanks.

  14. That's a great story and I really hope it's true.

  15. Another interesting post in this series, Friko. There's always something reassuring about a simple man doing what he can with what he has. Like your other pieces, this was well-researched and informative.

  16. A sweet story -- I'd never heard this legend.

  17. You touched and taught me once again my Friend

    Aloha from Hawaii

    Comfort Spiral



  18. When I think of Joseph, the image
    of Topol comes to me, and later
    in his carpentry shop I see his
    big hands, filled with strength
    while caressing wood. This tale
    gave me a warm buzz, and I think
    old Joseph has got the short straw
    in sermons and tradition.

  19. Friko, what a wonderful story, true or no, I enjoyed learning about the legend. I am enjoying your Advent posts.


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