“The Cherry-Tree Carol”


Joseph and Mary are walking. Mary asks Joseph for some of the cherries they are passing by, since she is pregnant. Joseph tells her to let the baby's father get them. The unborn Jesus orders the tree to give Mary cherries. Joseph repents


Widely considered to be based on the Infancy Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew (Latin, ninth century). In that book, however, the miracle took place AFTER Jesus's birth. Joseph, Jesus, and Mary were fleeing from King Herod when Mary became faint. Joseph led her under a date palm to rest. Mary begged Joseph to get her some of the dates. Joseph was astonished; the tree was too tall to climb. But Jesus (who was no more than two years old) commanded the palm, "Bow down, tree, and refresh my mother with your fruit." And bow down it did, and remained so until Jesus ordered it to straighten up (and be carried into heaven)!

The only part of this with scriptural basis is Joseph's jealousy (Matt. 1:18-20) and the angel's announcement that Joseph should care for the child (Matt. 1:20-25 -- where, however, the message comes in a dream).

It is perhaps interesting that, in the carol, it is the *cherry* tree that bows down. Various legends swirl about the cherry, including one from China that associates it with female sexuality (the English parallel is presumably obvious). There is also a Swiss legend that offers cherries to new mothers.

Incidentally, the link to the pseudo-Matthew is not universally accepted; Baring-Gould linked the thing to a tale in the Kalevala (canto L), the story of Marjatta, in which the virgin Marjatta eats a cranberry (?), brings forth a boy, loses him, finds him, brings him to be baptised, is condemned by Vanamoinen, but he defends himself and is baptised as a king. (Complications ensure, of course.)

The parallels are obviously interesting -- but it must be recalled that the Kalevala is actually more recent than the Cherry-Tree Carol. More likely both come from common roots.

An even more interesting parallel is in the Quran. In Surah 3:46 ("The Imrans"), Jesus "will preach to men in his cradle"; the statement is repeated in 5:110 ("The Table"). More amazing, though, is 19:22f. ("Mary" or, in more literal translations, "Mariam"): Mary, as she goes into labor, wishes she had died. The child speaks up and commands the date-palm to feed her. Later, as the unmarried Mary comes among her people, she is accused of whoredom. She points to the infant Jesus, who justifies her from the cradle.

The legend that Joseph was old when he married Mary has no direct scriptural basis. The logic is indirect: Mary was still alive at the time of Jesus's ministry, death, and resurrection. Joseph, however, is not mentioned in this context; the only mentions of him as a living man are in the infancy portions of Matthew and Luke. Thus the assumption was that he was dead, and hence implicitly that he was much older than Mary. This also allowed the Church to solve another problem: The mention of brothers of Jesus (James and others) when it was maintained (again on no scriptural basis) that Mary was a perpetual virgin: The argument was that Mary was Joseph's second wife, and Jesus's brothers were in fact half brothers: Joseph's children by the previous wife. (Making them, genetically if not legally, no brothers of Jesus at all.)

This cannot be disproved, of course. But two points need to be made. First, we have only two date pegs for the life of Jesus: First, he was born in the reign of Herod the Great (so both Matthew and Luke), and second, he was active in ministry in the fifteenth year of Tiberius the Caesar (Luke 3:1).

Herod the Great is known to have died in 4 B.C.E., meaning that Jesus must have been born by that year. There are inferential reasons to think he was born in 6 or 7 C.E.

Tiberius suceeded the emperor Augustus in 14 C. E. Thus his fifteenth year was probably 29 C. E. Jesus was very likely crucified in 30 C.E. This means that he was probably at least 36 years old.

So if Joseph had been a young man of 22 when he married Mary, he would have had to live to at least age 58 to be around when Jesus died. Lots of people in Roman Palestine died before age 58! The fact that Joseph was almost certainly dead in 30 C.E. is no evidence at all for the claim that he was old in 6 B.C.E. It' possible, but not all that likely.

The other evidence, about Jesus's brothers, is also weak. James is the one member of Jesus's family to be mentioned outsie the Bible: Josephus, _Antiquities_ XX.200 in the Loeb edition (XX.ix.1 in older editions) say that he was stoned to death soon after the Judean procurator Festus died. Festus, we know from Josephus, died in 62. James, under the "son of Joseph's first wife" theory, would have had to be at least seventy at this time. Certainly possible, but it's a lot easier to assume James was born after Jesus, and hence only in his sixties. I stress that there is no proof, but the strong weight of evidence is that Joseph was *not* old when Jesus was born. - RBW

Cross references


  • Maud Long, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (AFS; on LC14)
  • Jean Ritchie, "Cherry Tree Carol" (on JRitchie02)
  • Mrs. Lee Skeens, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (AFS; on LC57)


  1. Child 54, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (4 texts)
  2. Bronson 54, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (30 versions + 2 in an appendix, one of them being "Mary With Her Young Son"' in addition, #27 contains "The Holly Bears a Berry" and #29 a scrap of "The Holly and the Ivy")
  3. BarryEckstormSmyth p. 446, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (notes only)
  4. Flanders-Ancient2, pp. 70-73, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #9}
  5. Randolph 12, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 fragmentary text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #30}
  6. BrownII 15, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (2 texts)
  7. Davis-Ballads 13, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text plus 2 fragments; the only substantial text, "A," begins with two verses clearly imported from something else; 1 tune) {Bronson's #14}
  8. Ritchie-Southern, pp. 36-37, "Carol of the Cherry Tree" (1 text, 1 tune)
  9. Scarborough-NegroFS, p. 60, (no title) (1 single-stanza excerpt)
  10. Creighton/Senior, pp. 34-35, "Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text plus 1 fragment, 2 tunes) {Bronson's #22, #11}
  11. Thomas-Makin', pp. 222-231, "(The Cherry Tree Carol)" (2 texts plus a fragment, 1 tune)
  12. Leach, pp. 175-177, "The Cherry-Tree Carol" (2 texts)
  13. Friedman, p. 59, "The Cherry-Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune)
  14. OBB 101, "The Cherry-Tree Carol" (1 text)
  15. OBC 66, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text (separated into smaller parts, the last being "Mary With Her Young Son"), 4 tunes) {for the "First Tune" cf. Bronson's #1; the "Second Tune" is Bronson's #32}
  16. Fowke/Johnston, pp. 128-129, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #22}
  17. PBB 2, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text)
  18. ADDITIONAL: Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #42, "Joseph Was an Old Man" (1 text)
  19. Niles 23, "The Cherry Tree" (1 text, 1 tune)
  20. SharpAp 15 "The Cherry-Tree Carol" (5 texts plus a fragment, 6 tunes) {Bronson's #28, #17, #16, #19, #15, #21}
  21. Sharp/Karpeles-80E 12, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #16; cf. #20}
  22. Hodgart, p. 151, "The Cherry-Tree Carol" (1 text)
  23. Botkin-SoFolklr, p. 758, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text, 1 tune)
  24. LPound-ABS, 19, p. 47, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text)
  25. Darling-NAS, pp. 40-42, "The Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text)
  26. Silber-FSWB, p. 380, "Cherry Tree Carol" (1 text)
  27. DT 54, CHERTREE*
  28. Roud #453
  29. BI, C054


Alternate titles: “The Cherry Tree”; “Joseph and Mary”; “The Sixth of January”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1768 (Gilbert MS)
Keywords: carol Jesus religious
Found in: US(Ap,NE,SE,So) Britain(England) Canada(Mar,Ont,West)