In this tender family portrayal, father Joseph prepares food for the new mother and child. Symbolically, Joseph's meal preparation is a breaking of the fast of the vigil, the watching and waiting for the baby Jesus to be born. This tradition of understanding Christmas Eve as a time of vigil was popular in areas of Germany and northern Europe. Christians gathered in their homes, and then waited for the first star of the evening to appear. When the dark sky yielded its bright star, heralding the advent of the Christ Child, preparation for the feast began.
The artist of this touching work is Conrad von Soest, a financially and socially successful German artist active in at the turn of the 15th century. Active in the religious networks of the Marienkirche (devotion to Mary) and the Nikolaikirche, he trained in Dortmund and Paris. The painting of Joseph tenderly preparing food for the family is from the Niederwildungen Altarpiece. It depicts Christ's life in panels flanking a central Crucifixion.
"Conrad was a gifted and observant storyteller. The tender humanity of his elegant protagonists combining with selective naturalistic description, together with the outstanding craftsmanship, decorative surface pattern created by sinuous line, and a sophisticated iconography, place the altarpiece in the forefront of artistic development..."
from Medieval Germany: an Encyclopedia, by John M. Jeep, 2001. Routledge Encyclopedias of the Middle Ages.