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.


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