The Cherry Tree Carol (abridged)

Posted by | December 21, 2015

JOSEPH was an old man,
And an old man was he,
When he wedded Mary
In the land of Galilee.

Joseph and Mary walk’d
Through an orchard good,
Where was cherries and berries
So red as any blood.

Joseph and Mary walk’d
Through an orchard green,
Where was berries and cherries
As thick as might be seen.

O then bespoke Mary,
So meek and so mild,
‘Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
For I am with child.’

O then bespoke Joseph
With words so unkind,
‘Let him pluck thee a cherry
That brought thee with child.’

O then bespoke the babe
Within his mother’s womb,
‘Bow down then the tallest tree
For my mother to have some.’

Then bow’d down the highest tree
Unto his mother’s hand:
Then she cried, ‘See, Joseph,
I have cherries at command!’

O then bespake Joseph—
‘I have done Mary wrong;
But cheer up, my dearest,
And be not cast down.

The “Cherry Tree Carol” originated in England in the 15th century. We might be better served to think of it as the “Cherry Tree Carols,” since it exists in many versions, and any one given version is a composite of various sources.

English folklorist Cecil Sharp captured six American versions that were published in English Folk Songs From The Southern Appalachian (1932):

A. As Joseph And Mary Were A-Walking The Green (Mrs. Tom Rice, 1916)
B. Joseph Were A Young Man (Mrs. Jane Gentry, 1916)
C. When Joseph Was A Young Man (Mr. William Wooton, 1917)
D. Joseph Was A Young Man (Mrs. Margaret Dunagan, 1917)
E. Joseph Was A Young Man (Mrs. Alice and Mrs. Sudie Sloan, 1917)
F. Joseph Took Mary All On His Right Knee (Mrs. Townsley, 1917)

“The references to [Christ’s] birthday do not appear in the English texts,” says Sharp of these versions of the carol. “It is of interest that the date is given in the texts B and C as ‘the fifth day of January’, which according to ‘Old Style’ reckoning was the date of Christmas Day between the years 1752 and 1799.

“In 1751, when a change in the calendar had become expedient, eleven days were dropped out between September 2nd and 14th, 1752, thus making January 4th the date of Old Christmas Day. In 1800, another day was taken from the calendar, and in 1900 still another, so that Old Christmas Day now falls on January 7th. In Miss McGill’s version [Folk Songs of the Kentucky Mountains] the date is given as the 6th of January.”


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