The Orthodox Church commemorates St. Joseph, the Betrothed of Mary and the Foster-Father of God, on the Sunday after the Nativity.
According to Orthodox tradition, Mary’s parents were aged when she was born, and she was raised by the temple priests in Jerusalem. She vowed, as a child, that she would never marry, but would remain always consecrated to God.
When she came of age, her vow presented a problem for her guardians. They wanted to respect her vow, but their society had no place for a consecrated virgin. They worked out a compromise: She would be betrothed to an old man, a widower. The man would respect her vow, provide for her, and give her a secure place in their community.
Of course, for that to work out, they had to find a widower willing to be more than a guardian and less than a husband.
Joseph accepted the responsibility, but reluctantly. He was afraid that, sooner or later, Mary would decide that she wanted a young man’s attentions.
The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, one of the many stories about Jesus’s childhood that date from from the early seventh century, tells the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. Here is a portion of the story:
And it came to pass on the third day of their journey, while they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree. Joseph therefore made haste, and led her to the palm, and made her come down from her beast.
And as the blessed Mary was sitting there, she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm. And Joseph said to her: I wonder that thou sayest this, when thou seest how high the palm tree is; and that thou thinkest of eating of its fruit. I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle.
Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed. And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who bad commanded it to stoop.
Then Jesus said to it: Raise thyself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father; and open from thy roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from thee. And it rose up immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling. And when they saw the spring of water, they rejoiced with great joy, and were satisfied, themselves and all their cattle and their beasts. Wherefore they gave thanks to God.
This story was told and retold throughout Christendom. As it was told, the fruit changed to something familiar to the people telling the story. In England, the dates became cherries. The story changed in other ways as well, as stories do.
You probably know the story as the Cherry Tree Carol. Listen to it here. It’s one of the few Christmas songs that focus on Joseph, and the only one I know of that remembers that, at the time of our Lord’s Nativity, Joseph was an old man.
When Joseph Went up to Bethlehem: Listen to the Royal Hours for the Nativity. You’ll hear the story from Joseph’s point of view.
St. John the Theologian and the Mother of God: In the Orthodox tradition, St. Joseph was a widower with grown children and grandchildren before he was betrothed to Mary. And one of his grandchildren was St. John, the beloved disciple.
The Case of the Disappearing Name Day: When Christmas falls on a Sunday, my name day disappears. Sort of