The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Cherry Tree Carol

Words and Music: Unknown
See: The Cherry Tree Carol - Notes

Source: Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914, reprint of the edition of 1910)


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 no 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 the blood;
Then Mary went home
With her heavy load.


11. As Joseph was a-walking
He heard an angel sing:
"This night shall be born
Our heavenly King;

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

13. "He neither shall be clothed
In purple or in pall,
But all in fair linen
As were babies1 all.

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

15. "He neither shall be christened
In white wine nor red,
But with fair spring water
With which were christened."


16. Then Mary took her young Son,
And set Him on her knee:
"I pray Thee now, dear Child,
Tell how this world shall be."

17. "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.

18. "Upon Easter-day, mother,
My uprising shall be;
O the sun and the moon, mother,
Shall both rise with me."


1. Or: men. Return

Notes from Edith Rickert:

"The Cherry Tree Carol. Not having the numerous forms of this popular carol before me, I have followed Mr. Bullen* in his eclectic version. The antiquity of the episode upon which it is based is shown by its occurrence in one of the Coventry plays [in the 15th Century]. The scene is as follows:

Mary Ah, my sweet husband, will ye tell to me
What tree is yon standing upon yon hill?
Joseph Forsooth, Mary, it is cleped a cherry-tree
In time of year ye might feed you thereon your fill.
Mary Turn again, husband, and behold yon tree,
How that it bloometh now so sweetly.
Joseph Come on, Mary, that we were at yon city,
Or else we may be blamed, I tell you lightly.
Mary Now, my spouse, I pray you to behold
How the cherries grow upon tree;
For to have there on right fain I would,
An it please you to labour so much for me
Joseph Your desire to fulfil I shall assay sickerly.
Ow, to pluck you of these cherries it is a work wild,
For the tree is so high it will not be lightly;
Therefore let him pluck you cherries, begot you with child.
Mary Now, good Lord, I pray Thee, grant me this boon,
To have of these cherries, if it be your will.
Now I thank it God, this tree boweth to me down,
I may now gather enow and eat my fill.
Joseph Ow, I know well I have offended my God in Trinity,
Speaking to my spouse these unkind words;
For now I believe that my spouse beareth the King’s Son of Bliss,

*Miss Rickert is referring to A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland (London: John C. Nimmo, 1885), pp. 29-32.

This is one of several carols which Miss Rickert states “…belong to a mass of traditions such as appear in the Vita Christi (MS. 29,434, circa 1400, in the British Museum), of which seemingly only these few have survived, at least in carol form.” Rickert, p. 153.

Bullen notes:

"I do not feel at all sure that I have done right in dividing this carol into three parts. Perhaps it would have been better to print Part II as a separate piece, and join Part III to Part I. As regards the text of this carol no two copies are found to agree, and one is obliged to adopt an eclectic method. The alterations made by modern editors in deference to the mock-modesty of the day are singularly flat. Mr. Bramley, in “Christmas Carols New and Old,” gives the following ridiculous rendering of the fourth and fifth stanzas:

Mary said to Joseph
With her sweet lips so mild,
Pluck those cherries, Joseph,
For to give to my Child.

O then replied Joseph,
With words so unkind,
I will pluck no cherries
For to give to thy Child.”

Could anything be more pointless? Hone, in his Ancient Mysteries (p. 90), gives after the first stanza —

When Joseph was married,
And his cousin Mary got,
Mary proved big with child,
By whom Joseph knew not.”

After the penultimate stanza some copies add —

And upon a Wednesday
My vow I will make,
And upon Good Friday
My death I will take.”

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