The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Cherry Tree Carol

For Christmas

Parts 1, 2, & 3
See: The Cherry Tree Carol - Notes

Words: Anonymous

Tune: Anonymous

Joseph and Mary or Joseph Was An Old Man

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,
With words so meek and mild,
'Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
For I am with child.'

5. O then bespoke Joseph,
With answer most unkind,
'Let him pluck thee a cherry
That brought thee now with child.'

6. O then bespoke the baby
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 bespoke Joseph -
'I have done Mary wrong;
But now cheer up, my dearest,
And do not be cast down.

9. 'O eat your cherries, Mary,
O eat your cherries now,
O eat your cherries, Mary,
That grow upon the bough.'

10. Then Mary plucked a cherry,
As red as any blood;
Then Mary she went homewards
All with her heavy load.

Joseph and the Angel or As Joseph Was A Walking

11. As Joseph was a-walking,
He heard an angel sing:
'This night there shall be bom
On earth our heavenly King.

12. 'He neither shall be born
In housen nor in hall,
Nor in the place of Paradise,
But in an ox's stall.

13. 'He neither shall be clothed
In purple nor in pall,
But all in the fair white linen,
As wear the babies all.

14. 'He neither shall be rocked
In silver nor in gold,
But in a wooden cradle
That rocks upon the mould.

15. 'He neither shall be christened
In white wine nor red,
But with fair spring water
As we were christened.'

Mary’s Question or Then Mary Took Her Young Son

16. Then Mary took her young son,
And set him on her knee;
Saying, 'My dear son, tell me,
Tell me how this world shall be.'

17. O I shall be as dead, mother,
As stones are in the wall;
O the stones in the streets, mother,
Shall sorrow for me all.

18. 'On Easter-day dear mother,
My rising up shall be;
O the sun and the moon, mother,
Shall both arise with me.'

Sheet Music from Hutchins, Carols Old and Carols New (1916), Carol 563
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

The notes from Ian Bradley, The Penguin Book of Carols (London: Penguin Books, 1999):

This delightful carol, which transports Mary and Joseph from the Holy Land to an English cherry orchard, is of considerable antiquity and is found in early printed broadsides from many different parts of the country. No two versions are the same but the essential theme of what for obvious reasons has become known as the Cherry Tree Carol is unmistakable.

There are several theories about the origins of the symbolism in this carol. 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. [See the account of the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould, above]

The legend of the Cherry Tree is the lingering on of a very curious, mysterious tradition, common to the whole race of man, that the eating of the fruit in Eden was the cause of the descendant of Eve becoming the mother of Him who was to wipe away that old transgression. In the carol this tradition is strangely altered, but its presence cannot fail to be detected.

Others maintain that the origins of the story told in this carol go back to the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew which recounts how during their flight into Egypt, Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus rest under the shade of a palm tree. Mary asks Joseph to pick her some of the fruit, only to be met with the tetchy response that there are more important things to attend to. At this point, Jesus speaks and immediately the tree bows down to enable Mary to gather fruit from its branches. Joseph is filed with remorse and asks Mary's forgiveness. The Cherry Tree Carol may also draw on another apocryphal gospel, the Protoevangelium of James which describes Joseph's doubts about the paternity of Jesus and recounts a walk that he takes, while Mary is in labour in a cave outside Bethlehem, during which he encounters an angel. The Protoevangelium makes much of Joseph's age and has him saying, 'I am an old man, but she is a gift.' This point is also taken up in some other carols (see notes to No. 74, 'The angel Gabriel from heaven came').

Versions of the Cherry Tree Carol are found in virtually all the major collections made of traditional English carols in the nineteenth century, including Sandys' Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modem (I833), Rimbault's Collection of Old Christmas Carols (1861), Husk's Songs of the Nativity (1864), Bramley and Stainer's Christmas Carols, Old and New (1871) and A. H. Bullen's Carols and Poems from the fifteenth century to the present time (1886). The longest and the earliest text in a printed book is in William Hone's Ancient Mysteries Described (1822). The eighteen-verse version I give here, which follows that in The Oxford Book of Carols and is also the one printed in W. J. Phillips's Carols: Their Origin, Music, and Connection with Mystery Plays (I921), is the longest known and is made by putting material together from several different sources.

To list all the variations found in different versions of this carol would occupy several pages. In some, Mary and Joseph walk through a garden rather than an orchard, perhaps reflecting more closely the garden of Eden motif. The text quoted by Husk has Mary as 'Queen of Galilee' in line 1 and has an additional second verse which sets the scene:

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

Cecil Sharp collected eight different versions of the Cherry Tree Carol. One, which he took down in 1917 from the singing of a settler in the southern Appalachian Mountains, portrayed Joseph as a young man walking with Mary through apple and cherry trees. The last two verses of this version had an unusual twist:

And Joseph took Mary
All on his left knee.
Pray tell me little baby
When your birthday will be?
On the fifth day of January
My birthday will be,
When the stars and the elements
Doth tremble with fear.

The Cherry Tree Carol was clearly very popular in country districts of England well into the twentieth century. A version collected in Cornwall in 1916 seems to mix 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.

In his classic autobiographical novel Cider with Rosie (1959), Laurie Lee described taking part as a boy in a carol singing party round his native Cotswold village of Slad in the 1920s, where the verses beginning 'As Joseph was a-walking' were sung to a farmer called Joseph who lived high up on the hill. He noted: 'We always felt that singing it added a spicy cheek to the night.'

The Cherry Tree Carol has had almost as many tunes as variant words. Different tunes are given by Sandys, Husk, and Bramley and Stainer.

It is perhaps worth briefly mentioning here another 'fruity' carol which I nearly included as a separate item in this collection but which is probably brief enough to include at the end of this rather lengthy note. 'The Apple Tree' was discovered by Joshua Smith in New Hampshire in 1784 and almost certainly reflects a much earlier English folk poem which draws its imagery from the English countryside. Set to a melody by Elizabeth Poston, it was sung by the choir of King's College, Cambridge, in their 1965 Christmas Eve service of lessons and carols. Other modem tunes have been written for it and it is popular with choirs on both sides of the Atlantic. In contrast to the Cherry Tree Carol, it is delightfully brief:

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.

The version found in the Oxford Book of Carols is the same for parts 1 and 2, except as footnoted. Part 3 is different, and found below.

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