Cherry-Tree Carol, The [Child 54]

DESCRIPTION: Joseph and Mary are walking. Mary asks Joseph for some of the cherries they are passing by, since she is pregnant. Joseph tells her to let the baby's father get them. The unborn Jesus orders the tree to give Mary cherries. Joseph repents
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1768 (Gilbert MS)
KEYWORDS: carol Jesus religious
FOUND IN: US(Ap,NE,SE,So) Britain(England,Scotland(Aber)) Canada(Ma,rNewf,Ont,West)
REFERENCES (44 citations):
Child 54, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (4 texts)
Bronson 54, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (30 versions + 2 in an appendix, one of them being "Mary With Her Young Son"' in addition, #27 contains "The Holly Bears a Berry" and #29 a scrap of "The Holly and the Ivy")
Bronson-SingingTraditionOfChildsPopularBallads 54, "The Cherry-Tree Carol" (3 versions: #1, #3, #16)
Roud/Bishop-NewPenguinBookOfEnglishFolkSongs #147, "The Cherry-Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune){cf. Bronson's #10}
Greig-FolkSongInBuchan-FolkSongOfTheNorthEast #160, p. 1, "The Cherry-Tree Carol"; #164, p. 3, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text plus 1 fragment)
Greig/Duncan2 327, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (2 texts plus 6 verses on p. 579)
Barry/Eckstorm/Smyth-BritishBalladsFromMaine p. 446, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (notes only)
Flanders-AncientBalladsTraditionallySungInNewEngland2, pp. 70-73, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #9}
Randolph 12, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 fragmentary text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #30}
Brown/Belden/Hudson-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore2 15, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (2 texts)
Davis-TraditionalBalladsOfVirginia 13, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text plus 2 fragments; the only substantial text, "A," begins with two verses clearly imported from something else; 1 tune) {Bronson's #14}
Morris-FolksongsOfFlorida, #155, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #23}
Ritchie-FolkSongsOfTheSouthernAppalachians, pp. 36-37, "Carol of the Cherry Tree" (1 text, 1 tune)
Roberts-SangBranchSettlers, #3, "Joseph and Mary" (1 text, 1 tune)
Gainer-FolkSongsFromTheWestVirginiaHills, p. 34, "The Cherry Tree" (1 text, 1 tune)
Boette-SingaHipsyDoodle, p. 154, "The Cherry Tree" (1 text, 1 tune)
Scarborough-OnTheTrailOfNegroFolkSongs, p. 60, (no title) (1 single-stanza excerpt)
Moore/Moore-BalladsAndFolkSongsOfTheSouthwest 16A, "Joseph and Mary"; 16B, "Joseph Was An Old Man" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
Creighton/Senior-TraditionalSongsOfNovaScotia, pp. 34-35, "Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text plus 1 fragment, 2 tunes) {Bronson's #22, #11}
Pottie/Ellis-FolksongsOfTheMaritimes, pp. 38-39, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #22}
Cox-FolkMusicInANewfoundlandOutport, pp. 89-91, "The Cherry Tree" (1 text, 1 tune)
Thomas-BalladMakingInMountainsOfKentucky, pp. 222-231, "(The Cherry Tree Carol)" (2 texts plus a fragment, 1 tune)
Leach-TheBalladBook, pp. 175-177, "The Cherry-Tree Carol" (2 texts)
Friedman-Viking/PenguinBookOfFolkBallads, p. 59, "The Cherry-Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune)
Rickert-AncientEnglishChristmasCarols, pp. 88-90, "The Cherry-Tree Carol" (1 text)
Quiller-Couch-OxfordBookOfBallads 101, "The Cherry-Tree Carol" (1 text)
Dearmer/VaughnWilliams/Shaw-OxfordBookOfCarols 66, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text (separated into smaller parts, the last being "Mary With Her Young Son"), 4 tunes) {for the "First Tune" cf. Bronson's #1; the "Second Tune" is Bronson's #32}
Fowke/Johnston-FolkSongsOfCanada, pp. 128-129, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #22}
Grigson-PenguinBookOfBallads 2, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text)
Niles-BalladBookOfJohnJacobNiles 23, "The Cherry Tree" (1 text, 1 tune)
Sharp-EnglishFolkSongsFromSouthernAppalachians 15 "The Cherry-Tree Carol" (5 texts plus a fragment, 6 tunes) {Bronson's #28, #17, #16, #19, #15, #21}
Sharp/Karpeles-EightyEnglishFolkSongs 12, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #16; cf. #20}
Karpeles-TheCrystalSpring 94, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #25}
Gentry/Smith-ASingerAmongSingers, #6, "Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #17}
-TheBalladTree, p. 187, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #16}
Hodgart-FaberBookOfBallads, p. 151, "The Cherry-Tree Carol" (1 text)
Botkin-TreasuryOfSouthernFolklore, p. 758, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune)
Pound-AmericanBalladsAndSongs, 19, p. 47, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text)
Darling-NewAmericanSongster, pp. 40-42, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text)
Silber/Silber-FolksingersWordbook, p. 380, "Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text)
SongsOfAllTime, p. 25, "Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: Richard M. Dorson, _Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States_, University of Chicago Press, 1964, pp. 225-227, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text)
Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #42, "Joseph Was an Old Man" (1 text)

Roud #453
Susan Brown, "The Carol of the Cherry Tree" (on HCargillFamily)
Maud Long, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (AFS; on LC14)
Jean Ritchie, "Cherry Tree Carol" (on JRitchie02)
Mrs. Lee Skeens, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (AFS; on LC57)

cf. "Mary With Her Young Son"
cf. "Joseph and Mary (Joseph Being an Aged Man, Joseph an Aged Man Truly)" (theme of Joseph's doubts)
The Cherry Tree
Joseph and Mary
The Sixth of January
NOTES [3177 words]: This song is very similar to a passage in one of the Coventry Mystery Plays, cited on pp. 153-154 of Rickert-AncientEnglishChristmasCarols, in which Mary and Joseph come upon a cherry tree out of season and it miraculously sprouts cherries for Mary -- after which the rest of the action proceeds as in the song (including a line, "Therefore let him pluck you cherries, begot you with child").
Wells-TheBalladTree p. 183, quotes Mary's speech:
Now good Lord, I pray the, graunt me this boun,
To have of these cheries, & it be yo' wylle;
Now, I thonk the god, this tre bowyth to me down,
I may now gadyr anowe, & etyn to my fylle.
I would assume that both that tale and this song derive from the same legend, whatever it is.
According to Fowler, p. 48, there is another parallel, to a Middle English poem he clls "The Childhood of Jesus," the relevant verse of which he quotes. This poem comes from British Library MS. Additional 31042, the famous London Thornton manuscript. This appears to be "Almyghty God in Trynytee Þat boughte mane"; Index of Middle English Verse #250, also found in Harley MS. 2399 and Harley MS. 3954. According to Thompson, pp. 17-18, it is item #29 in the manuscript, apparently here titled "Ihesu Christi... the Romance of the childhode of Ihesu Cristi þat clerkes callys Ypokrephum" (i.e. it's an apocryphal tale). It is in two columns, from folio 163 verso to folio 168 verso; the standard stanza is 12 lines, rhymed ababababcdc. In Harley 3954, it is prefaced, "Hic incipit infancia salvatoris." It apparently hasn't been edited since 1885 (by Horstman), although Harley 3954 has been scanned and is on the British Library web site.
The source is usually said to be the Infancy Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew (Latin, ninth century); Child, for instance, declared that "The proper story of this highly popular carol is derived from the Pseudo-Matthew's gospel, chapter xx." In that book, however, the miracle took place AFTER Jesus's birth. Joseph, Jesus, and Mary were fleeing from King Herod when Mary became faint. Joseph led her under a date palm to rest. Mary begged Joseph to get her some of the dates. Joseph was astonished; the tree was too tall to climb. But Jesus (who was no more than two years old) commanded the palm, "Bow down, tree, and refresh my mother with your fruit." And bow down it did, and remained so until Jesus ordered it to straighten up. Jesus also ordered it to reveal its water source, and a spring arose. Later, Jesus ordered a branch of the palm to be carried into heaven! (chapter xxi; a fuller version is given on p. 57 of JamesNT).
Child's suggestion should be taken with some caution, although it certainly shouldn't be rejected outright. It's worth remembering that Child did not know the "new source" published by JamesInf, which (since two copies were found in England) was probably unusually popular there and which uses the Pseudo-Matthew story, but in much-modified form (most of the introduction of JamesInf is devoted to source criticism of Pseudo-Matthew, the Infancy Gospel of James, and the "new source"). I am not claiming this song is derived from the "new source"; I merely offer it as evidence that many stories of this source were floating around England.
Miraculous cherries also occur in the Middle English romance of "Sir Cleges," which is one of the few romances of the period which appears to be entirely native to English soil. They are even associated with Christmas: Cleges has given away so much of his property that he is reduced to poverty. At Christmas, cherries appear on a tree in his garden. He plucks some of them and (on his wife's advice) takes them to King Arthur's court, where Arthur gives him gifts that restore his dignity. (Wells, p. 161. For a bibliography of "Sir Clegges," see Joanne A. Rice, Middle English Romance: An Annotated Bibliography, 1955-1985, Garland Publishing, 1987, pp. 407-408.)
The only part of this with any basis in the canonical gospels is Joseph's jealousy (Matt. 1:18-20) and the angel's announcement that Joseph should care for the child (Matt. 1:20-25 -- where, however, the message comes in a dream).
Not to fear, though, Pseudo-Matthew had an explanation for that. Supposedly Matthew wrote his infancy account in Hebrew but did not publish it in his gospel. Eventually the infancy account was discovered by Jerome, translator of the Vulgate. He was hesitant to publish it, because Matthew wanted it kept secret, but eventually was persuaded to put it into Latin (JamesInf, pp. xii-xiii).
The link between this song and the pseudo-Matthew is not universally accepted; Baring-Gould linked the thing to a tale in the Kalevala (canto L -- the very last canto of the book; it was canto XXXII in the "Old Kalevala"; Pentikainen, p. 58) In the story of the virgin Marjatta, a berry cries out to the girl (lines 81-94 on p. 634 of Kalevala-Kirby). Kalevala-Kirby calls the berry a cranberry, but Joseph-Larousse, p. 105, makes it a cherry; Pentikainen at one place calls it an "odd berry," but on p. 147 calls it a lingonberry.
Marjatta -- whose very name means "berry" in Finnish, according to Kalevala-Kirby, p. 661, but which Pentikainen, p. 148, declares to mean "Saint Mary" -- eats the berry, brings forth a boy, loses him, finds him, brings him to be baptized, and is condemned by Vanamoinen -- but the child (who begins to speak at the age of two weeks!) defends himself and is baptized as a king. (Complications ensue, of course.)
The parallels are obviously interesting -- but it must be recalled that the Kalevala as assembled is more recent than the Cherry-Tree Carol; Elias Lonnrot published it in 1849 (Kalevala-Kirby, p. xi). Marjatta's tale may be older than the compiled Kalevala -- it existed in the "Old Kalevala," which is much more traditional than the final form (Pentikainen, pp. 48-48) -- but it is much more likely that both stories come from common roots. (Lonnrot, although he thought that particular "rune" of the Kalevala was among the newest, still believed it to be on the order of five hundred years old; Pentikainen, p. 85. This strikes me as absurd; what is certain is that he couldn't prove it. What's more, Lonnrot introduced the tale of Marjatta into that final rune; it had not been there previously! -- Pentikainen, p. 147. And Lonnrot was deliberately making the Kalevala a more Christian work; the original singers supposedly thought it part of a cyclical history; Pentikainen, p. 150)
An even more interesting parallel than either of those is in the Quran. In Surah 3:46 ("The Imrans"), Jesus "will preach to men in his cradle"; the statement is repeated in 5:110 ("The Table"). More amazing, though, is 19:22f. ("Mary" or, in more literal translations, "Mariam"): Mary, as she goes into labor, wishes she had died. The child speaks up and commands the date-palm to feed her. Later, as the unmarried Mary comes among her people, she is accused of whoredom. She points to the infant Jesus, who justifies her from the cradle.
It is perhaps interesting that, in the carol, it is the *cherry* tree that bows down. Various legends swirl about the cherry, including one from China that associates it with female sexuality (Pickering, p. 55; the English parallel is presumably obvious). There is also a Swiss legend that offers cherries to new mothers.
Even Pseudo-Matthew was the ultimate source, there might have been intermediate stages. The legend of the tree giving Mary its fruit took multiple forms in English. There was one in the well-known Cursor Mundi. The Middle English stanzaic Childhood of Christ, called a romance by Robert Thornton (who copied one of the surviving versions in the fifteenth century), goes beyond that. "In the more traditional rendering of this episode, found in the Cursor, after the child Jesus commands the tree under which Mary sits to bend down and offer its fruit, Jesus then has the tree make a well from its roots so that they may drink water to their fill (lines 11657-11730). In Childhood, wells of water and wine spring up from the tree's roots, a conscious link to the biblical miracle at the wedding at Cana" (Julie Nelson Couch, on p. 217 of Fein/Johnston. For the Wedding at Cana, see chapter 2 of the Gospel of John).
The legend that Joseph was old when he married Mary has no direct scriptural basis. It is true that, at this time, Jewish husbands were often older than their wives (RankEtAl, p. 212), but this isn't proof of anything. The Egyptian document JamesNT calls "History of Joseph the Carpeter,or Death of Joseph" says that Joseph lived to be 111, and that he was 89 when his first wife died; he married Mary two years later (JamesNT, pp. 84-85). But this is a late work that was unknown in Latin Christendom anyway. The only early testimony seems to be from the Protevangelium Jacobi or Infancy Gospel of James. In what Hone calls chapter 8, verse 13, Joseph -- upon being told to wed Mary, who had been brought up as a virgin in the Temple but now was being put out because she had reached puberty -- declares, "I am an old man, and have children, but she is young, and I fear that I should appear ridiculous in Israel" (Hone, p. 29; there is a somewhat looser translation on p. 388 of Barnstone as well as p. 387 of CompleteGospels; in CompleteGospels, it is chapter 9, verse 8; in Cartlidge/Dungan, p. 15, it is chapter 9, verse 5). We also find Joseph's sons accompanying Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem (CompleteGospels, 17:5, p. 392=Cartlidge/Dungan 17:4, p. 20=Hone, 12:5, p. 32, but Hone's translation is not parallel to the other two).
The Protevangelium also mentions the famous but un-scriptural detail of Mary and Joseph sheltering in a cave rather than a stable as in the Gospel of Luke (CompleteGospels, 18:1, p. 392=Cartlidge/Dungan 18:1, p. 21=Hone, 13:1, p. 33). It also claims that a midwife found Mary still a virgin after the birth -- miraculously, obviously.
After Mary and Joseph reach the cave, Joseph goes out and has a vision, as is found in some long versions of the Cherry-Tree Carol. The vision is found in CompleteGospels, 18:3-11, p. 392=Hone, 13:2-11, p. 32)-- but the two versions (based on different manuscripts) bears little resemblance to each other, and neither resembles the angel's conversation with Joseph in the Carol. The earliest witness to the Protevangelium, Papyrus Bodmer V, omits the passage entirely, causing Cartlidge/Dungan to include it on pp. 21-22 in double brackets, indicating a later insertion. Cartlidge/Dungan number it 18:2-7.
Hone, p. 24, suggests that the Protevangelium Jacobi was originally written in Hebrew, and claims there was a Latin translation. However, Barnstone, pp. 384-385, says that "No Latin manuscript survived the early condemnation of the book in the west."
Very little of what Hone says has held up any better. Although Jordan, p. 1, discusses the possibility that the book is by James the brother of Jesus, or James son of Zebedee, or the "other" James of Mark 15:40 (said to be the author in the Gelasian Decree of c. 495 C.E.), he goes on to note that the author did not know Palestinian geography, a strong argument against the possibility that it is by any of them. As for the language, Wake is the only scholar cited on p. 6 of Jordan to think a Hebrew original a possibility; almost everyone else argues for Greek. Barnstone also (p. 385) quotes Ron Cameron to the effect that it is full of allusions to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. The weight of evidence for a Greek original frankly appears overwhelming.
Jordan on p. 2 cites three scholars who thought it might be from the first century -- but goes on to note nine scholars who date it to the late second century (which still makes it relatively early for an apocryphal gospel). To these nine I can add that CompleteGospels, p. 381, dates it to the middle of the second century. Barnstone, p. 384, says that the book can hardly have been written before 150 C.E., and said that Jerome, translator of the Vulgate, condemned it (pp. 383-384).
The latest date I have seen is Harnack's, who argued for the fourth century (Jordan, p. 6). This late date can now be set aside; the latest possible date is the end of the third century, since Papyrus Bodmer V, found in Egypt and forming the basis for the Cartlidge/Dungan translation, is dated paleographically to 300 C.E. or shortly earlier (which, incidentally, makes it older than our oldest complete copy of any of the canonical gospels, although two other Bodmer papyri, known as P66 and P75, contain large portions of John from the third century, and P75 also contains a big chunk of Luke; there are earlier fragments of all four canonical gospels). But there is very little other early evidence of its existence; the other manuscripts cited in Tischendorf's nineteenth century Greek edition are all tenth century or later (Jordan, p. 3).
Barnstone, p. 384, notes manuscripts in Greek, Syriac (Aramaic), Armenian, Ethiopic (proto-Amharic), Georgian, and Old Church Slavonic. Jordan, p. 6. also mentions a Sahidic Coptic text -- but says the majority of manuscripts are in Greek or Slavonic. In 1980, de Strycker counted 140 Greek manuscripts (Jordan, p. 6) -- an amazing number for a non-canonical work. Even more amazing, parts of it turn up in Greek lectionaries.
I can't help but note that some manuscripts of the Protevangelium Jacobi make Mary only twelve years old at the time of the conception, and none makes her more than seventeen (Barnstone, p. 392). Yes, folks, the author of this book thought God was a pedophile!
It is perhaps worth mentioning that large portions of the Protevangelium Jacobi were incorporated into the Pseudo-Matthew Gospel (Jordan, p. 5) so often cited as the source of this Carol.
Since the Protevangelium did not survive in Latin, it is probably not the direct source for the Carol's claim that Joseph was old. Pseudo-Matthew is a more likely source. But it is not absolutely necessary to assume either as the source. The story seems to have been widespread -- presumably because it fit the sort of thinking that early church fathers loved. The logic is indirect: Mary was still alive at the time of Jesus's ministry (Mark 3:31fff. and parallels), death (John 19:25fff.), and resurrection (Acts 1:14). Joseph, however, is not mentioned anywhere in the context of Jesus's ministry; the only mentions of him as a living man are in the infancy portions of Matthew and Luke. Thus the assumption was that he was dead at the time of Jesus's ministry, and hence implicitly that he was much older than Mary.
Assuming Joseph was dead allowed the Church to solve another problem: The mention of brothers of Jesus (James and others are mentioned in Mark 6:3 and parallels, and James alone in Acts 12:17, 15:13, 21:18, Gal. 1:19, etc.) when it was maintained (again on no scriptural basis) that Mary was a perpetual virgin: The argument (which obviously matches the argument of the Protevangelium Jacobi) was that Mary was Joseph's second wife, and Jesus's brothers were in fact half brothers: Joseph's children by the previous wife. (Making them, genetically if not legally, no brothers of Jesus at all, since Joseph was not Jesus's father.)
This cannot be disproved, of course. But two points need to be made. To begin with, we have only two canonical date pegs for the life of Jesus: First, he was born in the reign of Herod the Great (so both Matthew and Luke), and second, he was active in ministry in the fifteenth year of Tiberius the Caesar (Luke 3:1).
Herod the Great is known to have died in 4 B.C.E (Josephus/Marcus/Wikgren, p. 459; Antiquities XVII.191 in the Loeb numbering, or XVIII,viii.1 in the older editions)., meaning that Jesus must have been born by that year. There are inferential reasons to think he was born in 6 or 7 B.C.E. -- Herod, after all, ordered the killing of all children under two years old in Matthew 2:16.
Tiberius succeeded the emperor Augustus in 14 C.E. Thus his fifteenth year was probably 29 C.E. Jesus was very likely crucified in 30 C.E. This means that he was probably at least 36 years old at the time of the crucifixion.
So if Joseph had been a young man of 22 when he married Mary, he would have had to live to at least age 58 to be around when Jesus died. Lots of people in Roman Palestine died before age 58! The fact that Joseph was almost certainly dead in 30 C.E. is no evidence at all for the claim that he was old in 6 B.C.E. It's possible, but not all that likely.
The other evidence, about Jesus's brothers, is also weak. James is the one member of Jesus's family to be mentioned outside the Bible: Josephus/Feldman, pp. 107-109 (Josephus, Antiquities XX.200 in the Loeb edition, XX.ix.1 in older editions) say that James was stoned to death soon after the Judean procurator Festus died. Festus, we know from Josephus, died in 62 (Josephus/Feldman, pp. 106-107). James, under the "son of Joseph's first wife" theory, would have had to be at least seventy at this time, and probably -- since he is always the first-mentioned of Jesus's four brothers -- closer to eighty. Certainly possible, but it's a lot easier to assume James was born after Jesus, and hence only in his sixties or perhaps even younger. I stress that there is no proof, but the strong weight of evidence is that Joseph was *not* old when Jesus was born.
One other crazy idea, which strikes me as even less likely than most of the preceding: That this story is somehow connected with Chaucer's "Merchant's Tale," in which the old lecher January purchases a young wife May, then goes blind; she is having sex with her young lover Damian in a tree when January recovers his sight, sees what is going on -- but is convinced it didn't mean what he thought.
According to ChaucerHussey, p. 28, "The final episode [of the Merchant's Tale], the tree-tryst, may be traced to a variety of sources, both oral and written. A version such as that known as The Enchanted Pear Tree was probably known to Chaucer. A more daring parallel exists in the legend that inspired the Cherry Tree Carol, one in which the husband Joseph (some legends say suspicious of his wife's mysterious pregnancy) has to satisfy the longing of Mary for cherries. A fresh dimension is added to the entire sequence if it is recalled that the pear has been held as a male sexual-symbol...."
Kenneth A. Bleeth, "The Image of Paradise in the Merchant's Tale" (published in Benson) points out that this parallel "has been discussed at length by Bruce Rosenberg: May's desire for "fruit," in addition to linking her with Eve, recalls the legend (preserved in the "Cherry-Tree Carol" and the Ludus Coventriae cycle) in which the pregnant Mary asks Joseph for cherries from a tree in a garden. Rosenberg suggests that the contrast between the tro pregnancies -- Mary's "sacred and archetypal," May's "feigned for an immoral purpose" -- focuses our perception more strongly on May's guilt." The source is "The 'Cherry-Tree Carol' and the Merchan't Tale," in Chaucer Review 5 (1971). - RBW
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