Some stories have lives of their own, flitting among fertile imaginations and rendered in varied art forms down through the centuries. One of these is the Cherry Tree Carol:

When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee.

And one day as they went walking, all in the garden green
There were berries and cherries as thick as may be seen.

Then Mary said to Joseph, so meek and so mild,
“Joseph, gather me some cherries for I am with child.”

Then Joseph flew in anger, in anger flew he.
“Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee.”

Then up spoke baby Jesus, from out Mary’s womb.
“Bow down ye tallest tree that my mother might have some.”

So bent down the tallest tree to touch Mary’s hand.
Said she, “Oh look now Joseph, I have cherries at command”

When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee.

The ancient Christian liturgy in Aleppo, Syria, first embedded this tale, intended to serve as filler for the sparse Nativity narratives found in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. Joseph’s pique toward the father of Mary’s baby still jars listeners, variously handled in ensuing versions of the tale.

It next surfaces in the pseudo-gospel of Matthew, ascribed to the Carolingian noble family in 650 CE. In place of the cherry tree, however, there is a date palm. More backstory is also found: the births of Mary and Jesus and more details of His childhood. Such additions speak to the religious imaginations of those believers and the simple faith that enabled their survival.  

One biblical scholar, Mary Joan Winn Leith, speculates that eleventh-century Crusaders in the Holy land recognized the legitimacy of the Syrian Christians’ liturgy and brought it home for their spiritual enrichment, including the carol.

The Cherry Tree Carol next surfaced in the biblical mystery plays, set in England’s East Midlands in the 1500s; it opened the Nativity Play, followed by Joseph’s humble apology. The sets for the performers, mounted upon wheels, were rolled to neighboring villages to inspire and educate the locals.

And centuries ago, The Cherry Tree Carol presumably made its way to the United States through English and Irish immigrants carrying their folk tunes and traditions with them. And in our time, Appalachian singer Jean Ritchie picked up this carol and recorded two traditional versions. Joan Baez reworked one of them in 1961, with guitar accompaniment; it can be heard on YouTube.

So The Cherry Tree Carol still inspires its listeners. That’s what graced stories have always done—they carry the élan for those willing to receive and rejoice. We’re in good company.

Fourteenth Century Mosaic of Pregnant Mary and Joseph on the way to Bethlehem in Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey