The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Joseph Was An Old Man

For Christmas

Joseph and Mary

Version 1 (Southern Appalachia)

Words: Southern Appalachia, Anonymous, collected John A. Lomax, 1937;
Transcribed from a field recording in the Archive of Folk Song, Library of Congress,
of the singing of Jilson Setters (James W. Day) at Ashland, Kentucky, June 28, 1937.

Tune: Southern Appalachia, Anonymous, arr. Elizabeth Poston

See: The Cherry Tree Carol - Notes

1. Joseph was an old man,
An old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary,
The Queen of Galilee.

2. As Joseph and Mary was walking,
Was walking one day,
'Here are apples, here are cherries,'
Mary did say.

3. Then Mary said to Joseph,
So meek and so mild,
'Joseph gather me some cherries,
For I am with child.'

4. Then Joseph flew in anger,
In anger flew he,
'Let the father of the baby
Gather cherries for thee.'

5. Jesus spoke a few words,
A few words spoke he,
'Give my mother some cherries,
Bow down, cherry tree!

6. 'Bow down, cherry tree,
Low down to the ground:'
Mary gathered cherries,
And Joseph stood around.

7. Then Joseph took Mary
All on his right knee,
'What have I done, Lord ?
Have mercy on me.'

8. Then Joseph took Mary
All on his left knee,
'Oh tell me, little Baby, ,
When thy birthday will be.'

9. 'The sixth of January
My birthday will be,
The stars in the elements
Will tremble with glee.'


A substantially similar version was reproduced in American Ballads and Songs, edited by Louise Pound (New York: Charles Schribner's Sons, 1922), p. 47, #19. It differs only very slightly from the version found above.

From Elizabeth Poston, The Second Penguin Book of Carols (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1970)

"Joseph and Mary ('The Cherry Tree Carol') - really a ballad and widely current in European folklore, bearing traces of its early antecedents in the legend from the apocryphal gospel of pseudo-Matthew in which the tree, true to local colour, is a date-palm. In European versions it becomes apple and cherry. The cherry tree version is in the Coventry play of The Miraculous Birth and the Midwives; also in English broadsides, and in Hone, Sandys, Sylvester and Husk. Sharp and Karpeles collected it in the Southern Appalachians (Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, Oxford, 1932, i, 90 ff., six variants); John Jacob Niles in Kentucky (Seven Mountain Songs, 1928, G. Schirmer Inc., New York). A!so: JAFL xlv, 13; xxix, 293 and 417; JFSS iii, 260. This exquisitely meditative tune from Kentucky (AFS 1010 A1) is a solo-type folk ballad of outstanding beauty, the simple parable a quaint and touching instance of the domestic scene as envisaged' through the eyes of simple folk and applied to the Holy Family

"The allusion in stanza 9 to Christ's birthday is in keeping with the song’s antiquity. 25 December was appointed by the Roman emperor Aurelian in 274 as the festival in Rome of the unconquered sun (natalis soils invicti), celebrations of the winter solstice that were transformed by the Christian church into the festivals of Christmas and Epiphany in which various pre-Christian elements survived. The date of Christ's birth, near to the Feast of the Passover, is unknown. The first mention of the Feast of the Nativity as being on 25 December occurs in a Roman almanac for Christians of A.D. 354, although Christmas had been celebrated on that date in Rome since at least eighteen years earlier. In the eastern part of the Roman empire the birth and the baptism of Jesus were celebrated on 6 January, the day on which Christmas is still observed by the Armenian Church. In the course of the fourth century the celebration of Christmas on 25 December was adopted in the east except by Jerusalem. In the west its observance on that date spread from Rome to become general in the sixth century, the two great Christian festivals of winter remaining closely linked in the Twelve Days of Christmas."

Editor's Note: Compare Joseph Were A Young Man where the Lord commands the cherry tree to bow down before Mary.

This carol is noted as one of several "doubting Joseph" carols by Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott including The Cherry Tree Carols, Joseph Being An Aged Man, Joseph Being An Old Man Truly, and Joseph Was An Old Man. See The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), Carol #129, pp. 446-8.

Translations on this site include:

See: The Cherry Tree Carol - Notes

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