The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Cherry Tree Carol

Words and Music: Unknown
There are numerous variations on this carol. See: The Cherry Tree Carol - Notes

Source: Joshua Sylvester, A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (London: John Camden Hotten, 1861)

The italicized text which occurs in the body of this version is that provided by Sylvester.

1. Joseph was an old man,
And an old man was he,
When he married Mary
The Queen of Galilee.

2. Joseph and Mary walked
Through a garden gay,
Where the cherries they grew
Upon every tree.

3. Joseph and Mary walked
Through an orchard good
Where were cherries and berries
As red as any blood.1

Joseph upon learning that the union with his "cousin Mary" is about to be blessed by a babe, suddenly becomes jealous and unkind. The carol continues:

4. O then bespoke Mary,
With words both meek and mild,
"Gather me some cherries, Joseph,
They run so in my mind.

The next verse gives Joseph's uncouth answer, that if she wants cherries she must ask somebody else to gather them for her, as he is not inclined to do so. The spirit of the unborn Jesus, however, hears the rebuke, and he commands his mother:

5. "Go to the tree, Mary,
And it shall bow to thee,
And the highest branch of all
Shall bow down to Mary's knee.

6. "Go to the tree, Mary,
And it shall bow to thee,
And you shall gather cherries,
By one, by two, and three."

7. Then bowed down the highest tree
Unto his Mother's hand:
"See," Mary cried, "see, Joseph,
I have cherries at command!"2

Joseph relents at the harsh words he has spoken, and replies:

8. "O eat your cherries, Mary,
O eat your cherries now,
O eat your cherries, Mary,
That grow upon the bough."3

Time is supposed to have elapsed, and the scene has changed.

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 cristened
In white wine nor red,
But with fair spring water
With which we were christened."

More time has elapsed, and the scene again changes.

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.4

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 uprising shall be;
Oh, the sun and the moon, Mother,
Shall both rise with me."

Notes on the Text:

1. Other copies of this carol supply different versions of these verses. One printed at Birmingham reads:

"Joseph and Mary walked
In the garden gay,
Where exercises grew
Upon every spray," etc. Return

2. Another version represents the fruit as previously ordained for Mary:

"Now you may see, Joseph,
Those cherries were for me.'" Return

3. The version given by Mr. Sandys reads:

"O then bespake Joseph,
'I have done Mary wrong,
But cheer up, my dearest,
And be not cast down.'"

Mr. Sandys obtained the carol from the West country, where everybody, even strangers, are addressed as "my dear." Return

4. The Warwickshire broadside copy in my possession gives this stanza:

"This world shall be like
The stones in the street,
For the sun and the moon
Shall bow down at my feet."  Return

Sylvester's Note:

Mary's desire for the fruit on the cherry-tree, and Joseph's refusal to gather it for her on the return on his jealousy, a singular legend of the dark ages, forms the subject of a Christmas carol still sung in many parts of the country. The remarkable scene occurs in the fifteenth pageant of the "Coventry Mysteries." Mary says (I give the original phraseology):

 Amy swete husbond, wold ye telle to me
What tre is yon standynge upon yon hylle?
JosephForsothe, Mary, it is clepyd a chery tre,
In time of yer ye myght fede you y on yo fylle.
MariaTurne ageyn husbond and beholde yon tre,
How yt blomyght now so swetely.
JosephCum on, Mary, yt we worn at yon cyte,
Or ellys we may be blamyd I tell yow lythly.
MariaNow 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.
JosephYor 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.
MariaNow 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.
JosephOw, 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 writer on carols [Hone] has remarked: "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 cause for it." Different versions, with additions and omissions, are given in the modern broadsides. The version here printed has been made after a careful examination of several copies printed in various parts of England. A few verses it was thought advisable to omit, but the sequence of the narrative is supplied by prose explanations.

Note that Hugh Keyte, an editor of The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) believes that "Joshua Sylvester" is a pseudonym for a collaboration between William Sandys (1792-1874) and William Henry Husk (1814-1887). See Appendix 4.

William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity. London: John Camden Hotten, 1868:

This carol has long been a favorite with the people, and is met with on broadsides printed in all parts of England. The legend of of the cherry-tree is very ancient. The fifteenth of the mysteries represented at Coventry on the feast of Corpus Christi in the fifteenth century, if not earlier, is entitled "The Birth of Christ," and the opening scene represents Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem. Mary, perceiving a cherry-tree, requests her husband to pluck her some of the fruit for which she has a longing. Joseph rudely refuses in much the same terms as in the carol. Mary prays God to grant her the boon to have of the cherries, and the tree immediately bows down to her. Joseph, seeing this, repents of his jealousy and unkindness, and asks forgiveness.

There are many versions of this carol, some with omissions, others with additions, but that now given [in Songs of the Nativity] seemed the most preferable. The latter portion, commencing at the verse "As Joseph was a walking," is sometimes given as a separate carol under the title of "Joseph and the Angel." 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."

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