The Cherry-Tree Carol

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"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).[1] The song itself is very old, reportedly sung in some form at the Feast of Corpus Christi in the early 15th century.


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.[2]

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.[2] 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, written around the year 650,[3] 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) rather than 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.[4]

The carol is found in the “N-Town Plays,” performed in the English Midlands around 1500.[5] Having developed out of the folk tradition, there are a number of versions of text and tune.[2]


The song has been recorded by Shirley Collins & Davy Graham (also by herself and with The Young Tradition), Marty Haugen, and Kacy & Clayton, It was popularized in the 60s by Joan Baez.[6]

It has also been recorded by 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, Mark Lanegan, Colin Meloy, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Nowell Sing We Clear, Pentangle, Angelo Branduardi (two italian versions: "Il ciliegio" and "Rosa di Galilea"), Peter Paul and Mary, Jean Ritchie, Casey Stratton, Bob Rowe, John Rutter (with the Cambridge Singers), the Poor Clares from New Orleans ("Cherry Tree Carol" on their album Songs for Midwinter), Sting (If on a Winter's Night), and Kerfuffle (as "Cherry Tree Carol" on their Midwinter album Lighten the Dark).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Francis James Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, "The Cherry-Tree Carol"
  2. ^ a b c Garvey, Jim. "History of Hymns: “The Cherry Tree Carol”, Discipleship Ministries, UMC
  3. ^ Ehrman, Bart and Plese, Zlatko, "The Gospel of Pseudo -Matthew", The Apocryphal Gospels, OUP, 2011, p. 75ISBN 9780199732104
  4. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 2, p 1, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  5. ^ Leith, Mary Joan Winn. "The Origins of 'The Cherry Tree Carol'”, Biblical Archaeology Society, December 2, 2018
  6. ^ "Joan Baez, 'The Cherry-Tree Carol'", American Songwriter, December 20, 2010

External links[edit]