The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Joseph Was An Old Man

For Christmas

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

Source: William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833)
See: The Cherry Tree Carol - Notes

Also found in William Sandys, Christmas-tide, Its History, Festivities and Carols, With Their Music (London: John Russell Smith, 1852), p. 241.

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.

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

Sheet Music from Sandys (1833)

Sheet Music From Sandys (1852)

Sheet Music from RR Terry Attributed to Gilbert and Sandys

39-Joseph_And_The_Angel-Terry_Gilbert-Sandys.jpg (85507 bytes)

Sandys' Note (1833):

"Joseph was an old man," or Cherry Tree Carol, as it is sometimes called, is founded on a very old legend, of which I know not the origin. The incident referred to is a prominent one in the fifteenth pageant of the Coventry Mysteries, and it may be amusing to compare the manner in which it is there told with the present carol

Mary says,
    "A my swete husbond, wold ye tell to me
    What tre is yon standynge upon yon hylle?

Joseph.
Forsothe, Mary, it is clepyd a chery tre,
In tyme of yer myght fede yow y on yo fylle.

Maria.
Turne ageyn husbond & beholde yon tre,
How yt it blomyght now so swetly.

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

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

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

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

Joseph.
Ow, I know weyl I have offendyd my God i trinyte,
Spekyng to my spowse these unkynde wurdys,
For now I beleve wel it may non other be
But yt my spowse bewryght ye kyngys son of blys, &c.

Note to Text, Sandys (1852). This version substitutes the following for verses 9 and following above:

9. Then Joseph and Mary
    Did to Bethlehem go,
And with travels were weary
    Walking to and fro.

10. They sought for a lodging,
    But the inns were fill'd all,
They, alas! could not have it,
    But in an ox's stall;

11. But before the next morning
    Our Saviour was born,
In the month of December,
    Christmas Day in the morn.

Joshua Sylvestre, Christmas Carols - Ancient and Modern (circa 1861, reprinted A. Wessels Company, New York, 1901)

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?

Joseph

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

Maria

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

Joseph

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

Maria

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.

Joseph

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.

Maria

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.

Joseph

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 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 Sylvestre" 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."

Hone, who gives a version of this carol, says, "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."

Hone's version, The Cherry Tree Carol - Hone, differs significantly from that reproduced by Sandys. He confirms its origin in the Coventry Plays, citing the Cotton Manuscript in the British Museum, Mystery VIII. See William Hone, Ancient Mysteries Described (1823, p. 90 ante.); reprinted by Ward Lock Reprints, Redwood Press Limited, Trowbridge & London, 1970. See, also, 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).  See: Hone, Mystery VIII, 'The Miraculous Birth, and the Midwives'.

See: Forbidden Gospels and Epistles - Archbishop Wake: The Gospel Called The Protevangelion, Chapter VIII:

2 But Mary continued in the
temple as a dove educated there,
and received her food from the
hand of an angel.

3 And when she was twelve
years of age, the priests met in a
council, and said, Behold, Mary is
twelve years of age, what shall we
do with her, for fear lest the holy
place of the Lord our God should
be defiled?

4 Then replied the priests to
Zacharias the high-priest, Do you
stand at the altar of the Lord, and
enter into the holy place, and make
petitions concerning her, and
whatsoever the Lord shall manifest
unto you, that do.

5 Then the high-priest entered
into the Holy of Holies, and taking
away with him the breast-plate of
judgment made prayers concerning her;

6 And behold the angel of the
Lord came to him, and said,
Zacharias, Zacharias, Go forth and
call together all the widowers
among the people, and let every
one of them bring his rod, and
he by whom the Lord shall shew
a sign shall be the husband of
Mary.

7 And the criers went out
through all Judaea, and the trumpet
of the Lord sounded, and all
the people ran and met together.

8 Joseph also throwing away
his hatchet, went out to meet
them; and when they were met,
they went to the high-priest;
taking every man his rod.

9 After the high-priest had
received their rods, he went
into the temple to pray;

10 And when he had finished
his prayer, he took the rods, and
went forth and distributed them,
and there was no miracle attended
them.

11 The last rod was taken by
Joseph, said behold a dove
proceeded out of the rod, and
flew upon the head of Joseph.

12 And the high-priest said,
Joseph, Thou art the person
chosen to take the Virgin of the
Lord, to keep her for him:

13 But Joseph refused, saying,
I am an old man, and have children,
but she is young, and I fear
lest I should appear ridiculous
in Israel.

14 Then the high-priest replied,
Joseph, Fear the Lord thy God,
and remember how God dealt with
Dathan, Korah, and Abiram, how
the earth opened and swallowed
them up, because of their
contradiction.

15 Now therefore, Joseph, fear
God lest the like things should
happen in your family.

16 Joseph then being afraid,
took her unto his house, and
Joseph said unto Mary, Behold, I
have taken thee from the temple
of the Lord, and now I will leave
thee in my house; I must go to
mind my trade of building. The
Lord be with thee.

Editor's Note: Compare Joseph Were A Young Man where the Lord commands the cherry tree to bow down before Mary.

This carol is noted as one of several "doubting Joseph" carols by Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott including The Cherry Tree Carols, Joseph Being An Aged Man, Joseph Being An Old Man Truly, and Joseph Was An Old Man. See The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), Carol #129, pp. 446-8.

Translations on this site include:

See: The Cherry Tree Carol - Notes

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