The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Cherry Tree Carol

Notes Concerning the Carols

In 1823, William Hone wrote "The admiration of my earliest days, for some lines in the Cherry carol still remains, nor can I help thinking that the reader will see somewhat of the cause for it: —

"He neither shall be clothed, in purple nor in pall
But all in fair linen, as were babies all:
'He neither shall be rock'd in silver nor in gold
But in a wooden cradle, That rocks on the mould;"

Even then, this was an old carol, dating to the Coventry Plays performed during the Feast of Corpus Christi, ca. 1400,1 and more than 400 years later, Hone reports, the carol is "still sung in London, and many parts of England." Joshua Sylvestre also noted in 1861 at this carol is "still sung in many parts of the country." In 1868, William Henry Husk wrote "This carol has long been a favorite with the people, and is met with on broadsides printed in all parts of England."

And in approximately 1884, The Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, while teaching carols to a party of mill-girls, began to relate the carol by Dr. H. J. Gauntlett, "Saint Joseph was a-walking," [As Joseph Was A Walking] when they interrupted him, saying “'Nay ! we know one a deal better nor yond;' and, lifting up their voices, they sang, to a curious old strain,—

"Sant Joseph was an old man,
And an old man was he ;
He married sweet Mary,
And a Virgin was she.

"And as they were walking
In the garden so green,
She spied some ripe cherries
Hanging over you treen.

"Said Mary to Joseph,
With her sweet lips, and smiled,
'Go, pluck me yon ripe cherries off,
For to give to my Child.'

Said Joseph to the cherry-tree,
' Come, bow to my knee,
And I will pluck thy cherries off,
By one, two, and three.'

[Some verses missing]

"And as she stooped over Him,
She heard angels sing —
'God bless our sweet Saviour
And our heavenly King.' "

"Raphael's picture of the Madonna giving cherries to the Child will recur to the mind of the Reader," noted Baring-Gould.

Sylvester wrote that this "a singular legend of the dark ages" was reflected in Mystery VIII of the Coventry Mysteries, which he quotes at length:


A my swete husbond, wold ye telle to me
What tre is yon standynge upon yon hylle?


Forsothe, Mary, it is clepyd a chery tre,
In time of yer ye myght fede you y on yo fylle.


Turne ageyn husbond and beholde yon tre,
How yt blomyght now so swetely.


Cum on, Mary, yt we worn at yon cyte,
Or ellys we may be blamyd I tell yow lythly.


Now my spouse, I pray you to be hold
How ye cheryes growyn upon yon tre,
For to have y of ryght fayn I wold,
& it plesyd yow to labor so mech for me.


Yor desyr to fulfylle I shall assay sekyrly,
Ow to plucke you of these cheries it is a werk wylde,
For ye tre is so hyg it wold not be lyghtly,
Y for lete hy pluk yon cheryes be gatt you wt childe.


Now good Lord I pray the, graunt me yis boun,
To have of yese cheries, and it be yor wylie,
Now I thank it God, yis tre bowyth to me down,
I may now gadery anowe & eten my fylie.


Ow, I know weyl I have offended my Gid i trinyte,
Spekeyng to my spowse these unkynde wurdys,
For now I believe wel it may now other be
But yt my spouse beryght ye kyngs son of blys, etc.

A version of Mystery VIII is reproduced by Hone in Ancient Mysteries Described (1823), pp. 67-72; see Hone, Mystery VIII, 'The Miraculous Birth, and the Midwives'. A more complete version is found in James Orchard Halliwell, ed., Ludus Coventrić. A Collection of Mysteries, Formerly Represented at Coventry on the Feast of Corpus Christi. (London: Printed for the Shakespeare Society, 1841), Mystery XV, "The Birth of Christ," pp. 145-155. That version begins:

Joseph. Lord, what travayl to man is wrought!
.....Rest in this werd behovyth hym non;
Octavyan oure emperor sadly hath besought
.....Oure trybutehym to bere, ffolk must forth ichon,
It is cryed in every bourgh and cety be name;
.....I that am a pore tymbre wryth, born of the blood of Davyd,
The emperores comawndement I must holde with,
.....And ellys I were to blame.

Now, my wyff Mary, what sey ȝe to this?
.....For sekyr, nedys I must fforth wende
Onto the cyte of Bedleem, ffer hens i-wys;--
.....Thus to labore I must my body bende.

Maria. Myn hosbond and my spowse, with ȝow wyl I wende,
.....A syght of that cyte ffayn wolde I se;
If I myght of myn alye ony ther ffynde,
.....It wold be grett joye onto me.

Halliwell observed that "The Coventry Mysteries are contained in a quarto volume, the principal part of which was written in the year 1468, now preserved in the Cottonian collection of manuscripts, under the press-mark Vespas. D. viii." Mr. Halliwell appends a Glossary, which commences on p. 419.

Baring-Gould notes the similarities to the last runa or canto of the "Kalcwala," the great Finnish epic, and that "The same incident occurs in the “Popol Vuh," the sacred hook of the Quiches, a Central American people, and formed part of the mythology of the ancient Mexicans. The same story has again reappeared from the catacombs of Egypt in the curious romance of the "Two Brothers." Numerous traces of the same idea may be found ..."

As William Studwell points out, however, there is not a single "Cherry Tree Carol."  Rather, this is a combination of three separate folk carols which later merged.  The first carol, based on the above quoted exchange, is "Joseph Was An Old Man."  The second carol begins with the stanza "As Joseph Was A Walking" (also known as Joseph and the Angel).  Finally, there is the Easter carol, "Mary's Question," which begins with the stanza "Then Mary took her young Son."

Studwell writes "The truth of the matter is that there are a number of "Cherry Tree" carols so that instead of the very misleading singular form a multiple designation such as "The Cherry Tree Carols," or even better, "The Cherry Tree Carol Series" should be substituted."

Even among the three carols which comprise this series, there is considerable variation in the lyrics that are reproduced (as shown below). It has been noted the editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols that Cecil Sharp collected no fewer than 8 texts. Ian Bradley notes one version captured in Cornwall in 1916 mixes in verses from 'The holly and the ivy' with a refrain:

Then sing O the holy holy
And sing O the holly
And of all the trees that are in the wood
It is the holly.

Likewise, there are a multitude of tunes to which the carol has been set. The Oxford Book of Carols captures four different tunes (Carol 66); separate tunes are given by Sandys, Husk, and Bramley and Stainer. The note in The New Oxford Book of Carols states:

Centuries of use have woven a tangled web of variant texts, all of them marred by the vagaries and omissions of memory, by singers' mishearings and their replacement of idioms no longer understood, by their clipping or expansion of lines to fit different tunes, and by editorial inventions.

They also note that the version given by Hone was "eclectic, having been assembled 'from various copies of it printed at different times.'" In addition, Studwell notes, there "are at least five distinct American songs with the cherry tree motif." He notes that in the United States there are two carols titled "Joseph and Mary" — unrelated to the English carol of the same name — plus single carols titled  "The Cherry Tree," "When Joseph Was an Old Man," and "Oh, Joseph Took Mary Up on His Right Knee."

Husk noted that Joseph's advanced age is mentioned in many places in the Apocryphal New Testament; as in the Gospel of the birth of Mary, where he is called "a person very advanced in years," and in the Protevangelion, where he is represented as saying, "I am an old man." Joseph's age is not mentioned in the canonical New Testament.

Bradley notes that multiple theories exists concerning the symbolism of the carol. He writes, "Some folklorists point to the widespread use in folklore of the gift of a cherry, or similar fruit carrying its own seed, as a divine authentication of human fertility." He also notes the relationship between the eating of the fruit by Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the eating of cherries by Mary whose son would erase the transgression. He adds that some versions have Mary and Joseph walking through a garden, rather than an orchard, reinforcing the motif of the Garden of Eden.

It has also been noted that the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Chapter 20, has a story that during their flight into Egypt, Mary sits beneath a palm tree and desires its dates, but is unable to reach them. Joseph is unable to climb the tree, but when Jesus intervenes, the tree bows down to give Mary the fruit. This is referred to as The Miracle of the Instantaneous Harvest:

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.

Source: Benjamin Harris Cowper, Trans., "The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, or Of The Infancy of Mary and of Jesus," in The Apocryphal Gospels and Other Documents Relating to the History of Christ. 2nd Edition (London: Williams and Norgate, 1867), Part II, Chapter XX, p. 59.

Most versions likewise follow this pattern: when Joseph refuses to retrieve the fruit of the tree for Mary, Jesus intervenes from the womb and the tree bows down to deliver the fruit to the Virgin Mary. There are two notable exceptions. In one version of Joseph Was An Old Man, it is Joseph who commands the tree to bow to Mary (and it does!). More astonishingly, in Joseph Were A Young Man, it is the Lord Himself who issues the command. You can be certain of the result.

Ian Bradley also mentions a carol collected in the United States, but likely of English origin, titled The Apple Tree, which he cites in part:

This beauty doth all things excel,
By faith I know but ne'er can tell,
The glory which I now can see,
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

Compare this longer version: Jesus Christ The Apple Tree.

Another version was captured by William Wallace Fyfe and reproduced in his Christmas: Its Customs and Carols (London: James Blackwood, 1860). He introduced this version with:

The most poetic times have most greedily adopted the most incoherent fictions, giving credit to tales like "Jack the Giant Killer" and " Blue Beard;" as we perhaps would, many of us, do now, provided the narrators would date them from the fourteenth century. Thus it was that legends like those of "Joseph And The Angel" were rapidly superinduced upon the tale of the "divine tidings" of the Nativity. As an example of Carol poetry in all its unsuspecting simplicity, it certainly cannot be surpassed.

The Legend of Joseph and the Angel

"He neither shall be rocked
In silver nor in gold;
But in a wooden manger,
That resteth on the mould."

As Joseph was a walking,
Thus did an angel sing;

At night the mother-maiden
Gave birth to Christ our King.

The blessed virgin wrapt him
From nightly winds so wild;

The lowly manger held Him,
Her wondrous, holy child.

And marshall'd on the mountain,
The angels raise their song;

The shepherds hear the story
In anthems clear and strong.

The herald-hymn obeying,
Nor loth, nor yet afraid,

They seek the lowly dwelling,
And find the blessed babe.

Then be ye glad, good people,
This night, of all the year;

And light ye up your candles,
His star it shineth near.

And all in earth and heaven
Our Christmas Carol sing:—

Goodwill, And Peace, And Gloet.
And all the bells shall ring.

The "ringing of bells" is an addition to the message of "Goodwill, and peace, and glory," which clearly betrays its having passed through the ecclesiastical alembic. It will be seen that the foregoing Carol beautifully embodies an unsophisticated narrative of the events of the Nativity. "He neither shall be clothed in purple, nor in pall," &c, may be taken as the ne plus ultra of the Carol stave.

And another version is said to have been captured by Edward F. Rimbault, Collection of Old English Carols (1861). I have been unable to gain access to Rimbault's collection, but will keep looking.

Recommended is Mary Diane McCabe, A Critical Study of Some Traditional Religious Ballads (Durham theses, Durham University, 1980), Chapter Four, "The Cherry Tree Carol," pp. 61-89, Notes pp. 90-99, and Appendix A, pp. 305-340, listing the 66 traditional versions and 17 English broadsides containing the carol. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: The Religious Ballads examined include:

See also Francis James Child, ed., The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Vol. II, Part 1. (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1885, 1886), #54, pp. 1-6: #54, The Cherry-Tree Carol Note.

In their notes concerning When Righteous Joseph Wedded Was, the editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols noted that that carol was one of several "doubting Joseph" carols, including The Cherry Tree Carols, Joseph Being An Aged Man, Joseph Being An Old Man Truly, and Joseph Was An Old Man. See Keyte and Parrott, eds., The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), Carol #129, pp. 446-8.

Versions With Multiple Parts

The Cherry Tree Carol - Bradley (Parts 1, 2, and 3)

The Cherry Tree Carol - Bramley (Parts 1 & 2)

The Cherry-tree Carol - Dunstan (Parts 1 & 2)

The Cherry Tree Carol - Hone (Parts 1, 2, and 3)

The Cherry-Tree Carol - Husk (Parts 1, 2, and 3)

The Cherry Tree Carol - Rickert (Parts 1, 2, and 3), following A. H. Bullen, Carols and Poems (1886)

Joseph Was An Old Man - Sandys (Parts 1 & 3)

The Cherry Tree Carol - Sylvester (Parts 1, 2, and 3, abridged)

The Cherry Tree Carol - R. R. Terry (Parts 1, 2, and 3)

Fitz-Ralph's Cherry Tree Carol (Parts 1 and 3) beginning "Joseph was a old man, And an old man was he," in The Guardian, 1871.

Part 1: Joseph Was An Old Man

The Cherry Tree - Version 1 - Cecil Sharp, English Folk-Carols, 1911 (Part 1)

The Cherry Tree - Version 2 - Cecil Sharp, English Folk-Carols, 1911 (Part 1, with extensive notes)

Joseph Was An Old Man - Version 1 - John A. Lomax, Southern Appalachia

Joseph Was An Old Man - Version 2 - John A. Lomax, Kentucky

Joseph Was An Old Man - Version 3 - Shaw and Dearmer, The English Carol Book, First Series, 1913

Joseph Was An Old Man - Version 4 - Source Lost

Joseph Was An Old Man - Journal of the Folk Song Society, Vol. III.

Joseph Was An Olden Man - John Jacob Niles, Appalachia

O Joseph Was An Old Man - "Taken from the mouth of a wandering gypsy girl in Berkshire." Notes and Queries, Fourth Series, Volume XII (Saturday, Dec. 13, 1873), pp. 461-462.

Part 2: As Joseph Was A Walking

The Cherry Tree Carol - Version 2-1 - O. Hardwig, The Wartburg Hymnal

The Cherry Tree Carol - Version 2-2 - Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, The New Oxford Book of Carols, 1992

The Cherry Tree Carol - Version 2-3 - Peter Duchin, A Musical Christmas with Peter Duchin, 1976

The Cherry Tree Carol - Version 2-4 - Source lost

Joseph And The Angel - Hutchins - Charles L. Hutchins, Carols Old and Carols New, 1916


Part 3: Mary's Question

The Cherry Tree Carol - Version 3-1


Joseph Being An Aged Man

Joseph Being An Old Man Truly

When Joseph Was An Old Man - Version 1

When Joseph Was An Old Man - Version 2

Cecil Sharp captured six American versions that were published in English Folk Songs From The Southern Appalachian (1932):

A. As Joseph And Mary Were A-Walking The Green (Mrs. Tom Rice, 1916)

B. Joseph Were A Young Man (Mrs. Jane Gentry, 1916)

C. When Joseph Was A Young Man (Mr. William Wooton, 1917)

D. Joseph Was A Young Man (Mrs. Margaret Dunagan, 1917)

E. Joseph Was A Young Man (Mrs. Alice and Mrs. Sudie Sloan, 1917)

F. Joseph Took Mary All On His Right Knee (Mrs. Townsley, 1917)

Concerning these versions, the note on page 415 states:

The references to the birthday do not appear in the English texts. It is of interest that the date is given in the texts B and C as 'the fifth day of January', which according to 'Old Style' reckoning was the date of Christmas Day between the years 1752 and 1799. In 1751, when a change in the calendar had become expedient, eleven days were dropped out between September 2nd and 14th, 1752, thus making January 4th the date of Old Christmas Day. In 1800, another day was taken from the calendar, and in 1900 still another, so that Old Christmas Day now falls on January 7th. In Miss McGill's version [Folk Songs of the Kentucky Mountains] the date is given as the 6th of January.

Two other versions collected by Sharp are noted above.


1. See, generally, Corpus Christi Day and the Performance of Mysteries, from William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, June 2). Return


Print Page Return Home Page Close Window

If you would like to help support Hymns and Carols of Christmas, please click on the button below and make a donation.