Jesus’ earthly father was a man named Joseph. The Bible implies that he made his living as a carpenter (Matthew 13:55). In the Gospel accounts of Christmas Joseph emerges as a righteous man of faith who dutifully observes the rituals of his religion.
Joseph plays a relatively large role in the story of Jesus’ birth recorded in the Gospel According to Matthew (chapters 1 and 2). When he finds out that his betrothed wife, Mary, is pregnant, he decides that he will follow Jewish law by breaking his engagement to her. Instead of doing so publicly, however, he looks for some way to call it off quietly. Many commentators have read his desire not to inflict unnecessary shame upon Mary as a sign of Joseph’s righteousness. Then an angel visits Joseph, informing him that Mary is pregnant by God’s Holy Spirit and asking that he take her as his wife. Joseph demonstrates his faith and trust in God by continuing his engagement to Mary and eventually marrying her. In Matthew’s account the angel appears once more to Joseph after Jesus’birth. The angel warns him to leave BETHLEHEM immediately, as Herod is planning to kill all the town’s male babies in an effort to rid himself of the “newborn King of the Jews” (see Holy Innocents’ Day). Once again, Joseph places his trust in the angel’s message and hurries his family away to Egypt.
Joseph plays a much smaller role in the story of Jesus’birth reported in the Gospel According to Luke. In this account, the angel appears to Mary with the message of Jesus’ divine father. Yet in this version, too, Joseph trusts the divine message and continues his engagement with Mary. Luke says nothing of the Flight into Egypt. Instead, he mentions Jesus’ circumcision and naming ceremony, which took place eight days after Jesus’ birth, according to Jewish law (see Feast of the Circumcision). Once again, Joseph is portrayed as a pious man who carefully observes the teachings of his religion.
Joseph does not appear in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ adult life. This has led many commentators to assume that Joseph died before Jesus became an adult. Many Christian artists have portrayed Joseph as an old man in accordance with this interpretation.
As the centuries rolled by Christians became more and more inter-ested in Joseph. Perhaps because the Bible has so little to say about him, an apocryphal, or legendary literature sprang up, adding fur-ther detail to his life and personality. In Roman Catholicism, he be-came the patron saint of workers, fathers, and happy deaths, as well as the patron saint of Canada, Mexico, Russia, Peru, Korea, Belgium, Vietnam, Austria, and Bohemia.
Western Christians began to observe March 19 as St. Joseph’s Day in the Middle Ages. Researchers have yet to unearth the reason for the selection of that particular date. Orthodox and other Eastern Christians honor St. Joseph on the first Sunday after Christmas. In 1955 Pope Pius XII declared May 1 to be St. Joseph the Worker’s Day, in an effort to add religious overtones to workers’ celebrations that took place in various communist countries on that date.
Joseph, along with his wife Mary and the baby Jesus, are the central characters in most Nativity scenes. Nativity plays, including the Hispanic folk play called Las Posadas, accord him an important role. He is also mentioned in a number of Christmas carols, such as “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” and the “Cherry Tree Carol.”