Advent Calendar Day 5 – The Cherry Tree Carol (Hunt)

Maintaining this week’s theme of fruit (hey, sometimes you just have to embrace these things), here’s a carol that comes from a genre I am hereby dubbing ‘Medieval Bible Filk’, or possibly ‘Medieval Bible Fanfic’.  It’s inspired by the New Testament (specifically from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, something I didn’t even knew existed until I looked it up), but it isn’t strictly canon, and it clearly comes from the mind of someone who was sitting there during a sermon one day and thought ‘well, it’s all very well for Mary to say that she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit, but I bet Joseph wasn’t too happy about that.’

(Incidentally, I’ve been told that churches dedicated to St Joseph are pretty rare in Italy, because the perception was that Joseph, for all his holiness, was also kind of a cuckold, and this didn’t sit well with the sort of men who were providing money to build churches.  Poor Joseph just can’t win.)

In this carol, Mary is pregnant, and she is craving cherries.  Since she is in a cherry orchard with Joseph, this seems like an easy fix, and she asks Joseph to pick some cherries for her.  Joseph is evidently having a bad day, because his response is that if she wants cherries so much, she should ask the guy who got her pregnant to pick them for her.  At this point, either the cherry tree bows down of its own accord, or the baby in Mary’s womb commands it to do so.  Mary gets her cherries, Joseph apologises, and everyone lives happily ever after.  There are a LOT of versions of this, but I love the mix of voices in this one.

The song doesn’t paint poor Joseph in a very good light, but clearly it had significant popular appeal, because there are lots of different versions not just of the tune, but of the text, with Joseph attaining varying levels of snarkiness, and Mary’s triumph when the cherry tree bends down to her being illustrated in greater or lesser degrees.  There are versions which go all the way through to anticipating Easter, versions where Joseph himself asks the tree to bow down to Mary, versions where Joseph starts conversing with the babe in the womb and Mary is just a side issue to the whole story, and versions with no cherries at all (still part of the same carol sequence, allegedly).  There’s a great article on the carol here, if you are interested – I fell down an internet rabbit hole reading it, though, so be warned. I suspect the appeal comes from the very human light in which the Holy Family is painted – grumpy Joseph, Mary with her cravings and her ‘heavy load’.

Incidentally, that appeal apparently hasn’t faded.  While looking for a version of the carol to share with you, I found not just a version by Joan Baez (a folk classic) but versions by Sting (regrettable, but entertaining) and by Annie Lennox (a version with absolutely no cherries in it, but great fun, and with a bonus African children’s choir on backing vocals).

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Advent Calendar Day 5: The Cherry Tree Carol

One of the more fun things about Advent Carols are the ones you get that were written by the people, for the people.  And the people sometimes had some pretty unorthodox ideas, largely, one suspects, because services were in Latin, Bibles were for the clergy, and singing was not permitted in church.  This left quite a lot of room for people to make things up with the best of intentions.  And people were pretty interested in St Joseph, because in some ways, he’s the most relatable character in the Christmas story.  I mean, Jesus is divine, Mary is a walking miracle, and then you have Joseph, just an ordinary bloke (indeed, a regular Joe), whose betrothed has just turned up pregnant and is claiming that the baby is the son of God.

You can see why he wouldn’t be too thrilled about this.  The people writing carols could see it too, and there are a whole swathe of carols about Joseph being quite grumpy about the whole business.  (Incidentally, I’m told that Joseph didn’t get many churches in his honour, especially in Italy, largely because of a feeling that he was a cuckold.  Apparently, being cuckolded by God isn’t much better than the regular kind of cuckoldry, at least if you are Italian.)  Here’s one of them.

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Advent Calendar Day 13 – The Cherry Tree Carol

I promised yesterday that I would show you today some of what happens when people go to church every week but aren’t allowed to sing and don’t understand the language. The short version is, they make things up! In fact, as our choir director is fond of telling us, most Christmas carols were made up by non-clerical types, which is why their theology is occasionally a little on the dodgy side.

Today’s carol, then, is a version of The Cherry Tree Carol, which originated in the Middle Ages, and has dozens of different versions, some of which can be found in Child’s Ballads and others in the Oxford Carol book. They all have different words, some of which go all the way from Mary’s pregnancy to the child Jesus predicting his life and his death on the cross, and they have different tunes. None of them are very flattering to Joseph (except for the Willcocks version, and that is because he cheated and changed the words).

I remember being told when I was in Europe a few years ago that there are very few churches of St Joseph around the place, because he is seen (rather unfairly) as a cuckold. This carol clearly springs from the same kind of thinking, as Joesph is much older than Mary, and when she asks him to pick her some cherries he retorts that she should get the person who got her pregnant to pick cherries for her. The cherry tree then spontaneously bows down – sometimes at the command of Jesus in Mary’s womb – so that she can pluck the cherries for herself, and Mary is vindicated.

It’s really hard to find the right version for this calendar (by rights there should be a Mediaeval Baebes version – this is just their style, I should think – but no such luck yet). The Willcocks has more of the sound I want, but the whitewashing of Joseph irritates me (I hasten to say that I have nothing against Joseph himself, but I do think one should preserve the meaning of the carol). And while I love folk songs, they don’t seem to quite fit, here. On the other hand… the whole point of including this carol is that it was a story and song made up and passed along by the general public, no church involved. So I’m going to just link to the churchy Willcocks version and instead share the traditional folk song version, which I do think is sung very beautifully here.

Enjoy.