The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Cherry Tree Carol

Note from Francis James Child

Source: 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.

See Also: The Cherry Tree Carol - Notes

The proper story of this highly popular carol is derived from the Pseudo-Matthew's gospel, chapter xx; Tischendorf, Evangelia Apocrypha, p. 82; Thilo, Codex Apocryphus Novi Testamenti, Historia de Nativitate Mariae et de Infantia Salvatoris, p. 395. What succeeds, after A 9, B 8, C 7, D 6, is probably founded on the angel's words to the shepherds in Luke ii, and on Jesus's predictions in the authentic gospels. This latter portion is sometimes printed as an independent carol, under the title of 'Joseph and the Angel.' *

* A copy of the Cherry-Tree carol in The Guardian, Dec. 27, 1871, is partly compiled "from several ancient sources," and partly composed by the contributor: see Notes and Queries, Fourth Series, X, 73. [See: Fitz-Ralph's Cherry Tree Carol.]

On the third day of the flight into Egypt, Mary, feeling the heat to be oppressive, tells Joseph that she will rest for a while under a palm-tree. Joseph helps her to light from her beast, and Mary, looking up from under the tree, and seeing it full of fruit, asks for some. Joseph somewhat testily expresses his surprise that she should think of such a thing, considering the height of the tree : he is much more concerned to get a supply of water. Then Jesus, sitting on his mother's lap, bids the palm to bow down and refresh his mother with its fruit. The palm instantly bends its top to Mary's feet.

The truly popular carol would be sure to adapt the fruit to its own soil. In English the tree is always a cherry. We have the story also in the fifteenth of the Coventry Mysteries, ed. Halliwell, p. 146 (not omitting Joseph's quip in A 5, etc.), with the addition of a little more miracle: for it is not the season for cherries, and Mary's wish is anticipated by the tree's blooming before she has uttered it. In Catalan and Provencal the tree is an apple. On the way from Bethlehem to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph come upon a gardener who is climbing an apple-tree, and Mary asks for an apple. He politely gives her leave to pluck for herself. Joseph, who this time has not been disobliging, tries, but the branches go up; Mary tries, and the branches come to her: ** Mila, Romancerillo, p. 3, No 4. Also p. 63, No 55, where again Joseph is molt fello, very crusty; further, Briz, III, 228; Arbaud, Chants populaires de la Provence, 'Lou premier Miracle,' I, 23, and 'La Fuito en Egypto,' II, 237 f.

In other legendary ballads, not so entirely popular, the palm-tree is preserved: Meinert, p. 262; Bohme, p. 628, No 523 = Weinhold, Weihnachtspiele, p. 385; Lexer, Kiirntisches Wbrterbuch, p. 310; Feifalik, Die Kindheit Jesu, pp 101, 106 = Pailler, Weihnachtlieder aus Oberosterreich, No 314, p 338 f; Pailler, p. 332, No 310; Hoffmann, Horae Belgicae, Part Ten, p. 59; Alberdingk Thijm, I, 212. In Schmitz, Sitten und Sagen des Eifler Volkes, 1,116, and Pailler, as above, No 311, we have a fig-tree. Some of these are very imperfect, or have even lost chief points in the story.

** Cf. the very naive D 5: 'Mary shall have cherries, and Joseph shall have none.'

There are many narratives of the childhood of Jesus, based on the apocryphal gospels, in which this legend must needs be found: as, Cursor Mundi, ed. Morris, II, 668 f, v. 11,657 ff; Horstmann, Altenglische Legenden, 1875, p. 6,1878, pp 102,112; Stephens, Fornsvenskt Legendarium, p. 71; Pitre, Canti popolari siciliani, II, 333.***

*** Liber de Infantia Mariae et Christi Salvatoria, O. Schade, 1869, p. 38 f, follows almost word for word the Pseudo-Matthew. In note 234 the editor points out passages where the story occurs in Hrothavfthn, and other medieval poetry. See, also, Schade, Narrationes de vita et conversatione beate Maria Virginia, 1879, pp. 16, 24.

Editor's Note:

What follows this text is four versions of this carol from the following sources:

A. a. 'Joseph Was An Old Man' (Parts 1 & 3), Sandys, Christmas Carols, p. 123. b. Sandys, Christmastide, p. 241.

B. a. 'The Cherry-Tree Carol' (Parts 1, 2, and 3), Husk, Songs of the Nativity, p. 59. b. 'The Cherry Tree Carol' (Parts 1, 2, and 3), Hone's Ancient Mysteries, p. 90. c. 'The Cherry Tree Carol' (Parts 1, 2, and 3, abridged), Sylvester, A Garland of Christmas Carols, p. 45. d. 'The Cherry-Tree,'  Birmingham chap-book, of about 1843, in B. Harris Cowper's Apocryphal Gospels, p. xxxviii.

C. a. 'The Cherry Tree Carol,' (Parts 1 & 2), Bramley and Stainer, Christmas Carols, p. 60.

D. Notes and Queries, Fourth Series, Volume XII (July-December, 1873; Saturday, Dec. 13, 1873), p. 461. "O Joseph Was An Old Man." There, the carol is introduced with: "On the subject of Christmas with the dusky people, a correspondent sends us the following ... As taken from the Mouth of a Wandering Gipsey Girl in Berkshire."

Here are the four versions given by Child, although without their proper notes (which I'm working on; please check back):

54A: The Cherry-Tree Carol

1 JOSEPH was an old man,
and an old man was he,
When he wedded Mary,
in the land of Galilee.

2 Joseph and Mary walked
through an orchard good,
Where was cherries and berries,
so red as any blood.

3 Joseph and Mary walked
through an orchard green,
Where was berries and cherries,
as thick as might be seen.

4 O then bespoke Mary,
so meek and so mild:
‘Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
for I am with child.’

5 O then bespoke Joseph,
with words most unkind:
‘Let him pluck thee a cherry
that brought thee with child.’

6 O then bespoke the babe,
within his mother’s womb:
‘Bow down then the tallest tree,
for my mother to have some.’

7 Then bowed down the highest tree
unto his mother’s hand;
Then she cried, See, Joseph,
I have cherries at command.

8 O then bespake Joseph:
‘I have done Mary wrong;
But cheer up, my dearest,
and be not cast down.’

9 Then Mary plucked a cherry,
as red as the blood,
Then Mary went home
with her heavy load.

10 Then Mary took her babe,
and sat him on her knee,
Saying, My dear son, tell me
what this world will be.

11 ‘O I shall be as dead, mother,
as the stones in the wall;
O the stones in the streets, mother,
shall mourn for me all.

12 ‘Upon Easter-day, mother,
my uprising shall be;
O the sun and the moon, mother,
shall both rise with me.’

54B: The Cherry-Tree Carol

1 JOSEPH was an old man,
and an old man was he,
And he married Mary,
the Queen of Galilee.

2 When Joseph was married,
and Mary home had brought,
Mary proved with child,
and Joseph knew it not.

3 Joseph and Mary walked
through a garden gay,
Where the cherries they grew
upon every tree.

4 O then bespoke Mary,
with words both meek and mild:
‘O gather me cherries, Joseph,
they run so in my mind.’

5 And then replied Joseph,
with words so unkind:
‘Let him gather thee cherries
that got thee with child.’

6 O then bespoke our Saviour,
all in his mother’s womb:
‘Bow down, good cherry-tree,
to my mother’s hand.’

7 The uppermost sprig
bowed down to Mary’s knee:
‘Thus you may see, Joseph,
these cherries are for me.’

8 ‘O eat your cherries, Mary,
O eat your cherries now;
O eat your cherries, Mary,
that grow upon the bough.’

9 As Joseph was a walking,
he heard an angel sing:
‘This night shall be born
our heavenly king.

10 ‘He neither shall be born
in housen nor in hall,
Nor in the place of Paradise,
but in an ox’s stall.

11 ‘He neither shall be clothed
in purple nor in pall,
But all in fair linen,
as were babies all.

12 ‘He neither shall be rocked
in silver nor in gold,
But in a wooden cradle,
that rocks on the mould.

13 ‘He neither shall be christened
in white wine nor red,
But with fair spring water,
with which we were christened.’

14 Then Mary took her young son,
and set him on her knee:
‘I pray thee now, dear child,
tell how this world shall be.’

15 ‘O I shall be as dead, mother,
as the stones in the wall;
O the stones in the street, mother,
shall mourn for me all.

16 ‘And upon a Wednesday
my vow I will make,
And upon Good Friday
my death I will take.

17 ‘Upon Easter-day, mother,
my rising shall be;
O the sun and the moon
shall uprise with me.

18 ’ The people shall rejoice,
and the birds they shall sing,
To see the uprising
of the heavenly king.’

54C: The Cherry-Tree Carol

1 JOSEPH was an old man,
an old man was he,
He married sweet Mary,
the Queen of Galilee.

2 As they went a walking
in the garden so gay,
Maid Mary spied cherries,
hanging over yon tree.

3 Mary said to Joseph,
with her sweet lips so mild,
‘Pluck those cherries, Joseph,
for to give to my child.’

4 O then replied Joseph,
with words so unkind,
‘I will pluck no cherries
for to give to thy child.’

5 Mary said to cherry-tree,
‘Bow down to my knee,
That I may pluck cherries,
by one, two, and three.’

6 The uppermost sprig then
bowed down to her knee:
‘Thus you may see, Joseph,
these cherries are for me.’

7 ‘O eat your cherries, Mary,
O eat your cherries now,
O eat your cherries, Mary,
that grow upon the bough.’

8 As Joseph was a walking
he heard angels sing,
‘This night there shall be born
our heavenly king.

9 ‘He neither shall be born
in house nor in hall,
Nor in the place of Paradise,
but in an ox-stall.

10 ‘He shall not be clothed
in purple nor pall,
But all in fair linen,
as wear babies all.

11 ‘He shall not be rocked
in silver nor gold,
But in a wooden cradle,
that rocks on the mould.

12 ‘He neither shall be christened
in milk nor in wine,
But in pure spring-well water,
fresh sprung from Bethine.’

13 Mary took her baby,
she dressed him so sweet;
She laid him in a manger,
all there for to sleep.

14 As she stood over him
she heard angels sing,
‘Oh bless our dear Saviour,
our heavenly king.’

54D: The Cherry-Tree Carol

1 O JOSEPH was an old man,
and an old man was he,
And he married Mary,
from the land of Galilee.

2 Oft after he married her,
how warm he were abroad,
. . . .
. . . .

3 Then Mary and Joseph
walkd down to the gardens cool;
Then Mary spied a cherry,
as red as any blood.

4 ‘Brother Joseph, pluck the cherry,
for I am with child:’
‘Let him pluck the cherry, Mary,
as is father to the child.’

5 Then our blessed Saviour spoke,
from his mother’s womb:
‘Mary shall have cherries,
and Joseph shall have none.’

6 From the high bough the cherry-tree
bowd down to Mary’s knee;
Then Mary pluckt the cherry,
by one, two, and three.

7 They went a little further,
and heard a great din:
‘God bless our sweet Saviour,
our heaven’s love in.’

8 Our Saviour was not rocked
in silver or in gold,
But in a wooden cradle,
like other babes all.

9 Our Saviour was not christend
in white wine or red,
But in some spring water,
like other babes all.

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