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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0 comments for “Advent Calendar Day 5 – The Cherry Tree Carol (Hunt)

  1. filkferengi
    December 5, 2015 at 12:39 am

    Colin Meloy, Peter, Paul & Mary, and the Chad Mitchell Trio also covered it–popular, indeed!

    • December 5, 2015 at 10:47 am

      Absolutely everyone seems to have covered it, judging by YouTube!

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