The Cherry-Tree Carol
"The Cherry-Tree Carol" is a ballad with the rare distinction of being both a Christmas carol and one of the Child Ballads (no. 54). The song itself is very old, reportedly sung in some form at the Feast of Corpus Christi in the early 15th century. The versions eventually collected by Francis James Child are thought to be a combination of up to three separate carols that merged through the centuries.
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The ballad relates an apocryphal story of the Virgin Mary, presumably while traveling to Bethlehem with Joseph for the census. In the most popular version, the two stop in a cherry orchard, and Mary asks her husband to pick cherries for her, citing her child. Joseph spitefully tells Mary to let the child's father pick her cherries.
At this point in most versions, the infant Jesus, from the womb, speaks to the tree and commands it to lower a branch down to Mary, which it does. Joseph, witnessing this miracle, immediately repents his harsh words. The more contemporary versions sometimes end here, while others often include an angel appearing to Joseph and telling him of the circumstances of Jesus's birth. Other versions then jump ahead several years, where the next verse picks up with Jesus on his mother's lap, telling her of his eventual death and resurrection.
The story is derived from the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which combines many earlier apocryphal Nativity traditions; however, in Pseudo-Matthew, the event takes place during the flight into Egypt, and the fruit tree is a palm tree (presumably a date palm) and not a cherry tree. In the apocryphal Gospel, Jesus has already been born and so Joseph's truculence is unrelated to any dismay over Mary's pregnancy, but has to do with an inability to reach the fruits of the palm and a concern over the family's lack of water.
The song has been recorded by Shirley Collins & Davy Graham (also by herself and with The Young Tradition), Marty Haugen, Anonymous 4, Joan Baez, Martyn Bates (of Eyeless in Gaza) and Max Eastley, Joan Osborne, Baltimore Consort, Angelo Branduardi (Italian version titled "Il ciliegio", French version "Le cerisier", Spanish version "El cerezo"), the Clancy Brothers (as "When Joseph Was an Old Man"), Judy Collins, José Feliciano, Emmylou Harris, Mary Hopkin (as B-side of the single "Mary had a Baby/Cherry Tree Carol"), the King's College Choir, Cindy Kallet, Magpie Lane, Colin Meloy, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Nowell Sing We Clear, Pentangle, Peter Paul and Mary, Jean Ritchie, Casey Stratton, Bob Rowe, John Rutter with the Cambridge Singers, the Poor Clares from New Orleans titled "Cherry Tree Carol" on their album Songs for Midwinter, The Robert Shaw Chorale, by the English musician Sting on his 2009 album If on a Winter's Night, by Annie Lennox on her 2010 album A Christmas Cornucopia and by Kerfuffle as "Cherry Tree Carol" on their Midwinter album Lighten the Dark. In 2012, the song was also recorded by Mark Lanegan for the album Dark Mark Does Christmas.