In a recent posting, I mentioned the belief common in Protestantism (and contrary to that in Eastern Orthodoxy) that the newly-married Joseph and Mary were quite poor rather than wealthy. That notion of their poverty is also found often in European Catholic art and folk song.
You may not know it, but there is a reliquary in the Cathedral at Aachen, Germany, which purported (though some may still believe it, who knows?) to contain the swaddling clothes of the infant Jesus.
Even more interesting is the belief — an old tradition — that these swaddling clothes were made by Joseph, who, seeing that Mary had nothing else for the purpose, took off his long socks (his hose in old terms) and cut them up so that Mary might wrap the child in them.
Here is an example of that motif in a painting from around the year 1400. We see elements in it rather like those in the traditional Eastern Orthodox Nativity icons, but notice that Joseph sits with his bare foot sticking out as he cuts up his hosiery with a knife to make swaddling clothes:
Of course, just as there are differences in the New Testament Nativity accounts, there are also differences in these old traditions. Some say it was his shirt that Joseph took off and cut up, and others say Mary used her own veil.
It was the custom in old German churches at Christmastime to have a kind of Nativity play, “Das Kindlein Wiegen” — “The Rocking of the Child.” Local people played the parts.
In Das Rollwagenbüchlin from the middle of the 1500s — a book one could read while traveling in a Rollwagen or pre-stagecoach wagon — Jörg Wickram gave a highly entertaining narration of such a Christmas pageant gone wrong. Here is my loose translation of the German original:
Of a Christmas Child and Joseph, how he Cooked him Mush in the Church, and they Slugged Each Other in the Church.
In the Bishopric of Cologne it once happened at Christmastime — on Christmas Eve — that they “Rocked the Child” on the same night. And they took a big choirboy, who was to be the Child, and they lay the Child Jesus in a cradle, and Mary rocked it. And the Child began to cry very loudly. As it would not be quiet, Joseph ran hastily to cook the Child some mush or porridge, and gave it to him to eat, so he would be quiet. But because he still would not be silent, the good Joseph took a spoon full of hot mush, ran with it to the cradle, and shoved the spoon with the hot mush down the Child’s throat, and burnt the Child’s mouth so badly that he stopped screaming and weeping. The Child hastily climbed out the the cradle, grabbed Joseph’s hair, and they slugged each other. But the child was so much stronger than Joseph, that he threw him to the floor and dragged him around, so that the people in the church had to come to Joseph’s aid.
It was not exactly a “Silent Night.”