History of Hymns: “The Cherry Tree Carol”

by Jim Garvey

The Cherry Tree Carol 
traditional English carol

Joseph was an old man, and an old man was he,
When he wedded Mary, in the land of Galilee.         
Joseph and Mary walked through an orchard good,
Where was cherries and berries, so red as any blood.
(Child Ballads, 54A)

In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus is born, reappears briefly in the temple at about twelve years old, then disappears for almost twenty years before returning as an adult. But what happened between that birth and the start of his work? What was he like as a child? What were Joseph and Mary like? What sorts of carpentry work did Jesus do with Joseph as he was growing up? Did he show any signs of his divinity in his childhood? Did he yet realize who he was? How did that understanding grow in him? What happened to Joseph? How old was Jesus when he died?

These invisible years have fascinated and frustrated Christians from the earliest days of the church. The apocryphal gospels of James and Thomas focus on those years, and drawing on them, a Hebrew text purporting to be written by the Evangelist Matthew, told stories focusing on the childhoods of both Mary and Jesus. Probably written between 600 and 625 A.D, this book has come to be called The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. The ox and donkey at the manger have their source here, as does the traditional view of Joseph being a very old man when he married the very young Mary.

Enormously popular throughout the Middle Ages, the stories in Pseudo-Matthew gave rise to many folk tales and songs. One that has survived to our own day is the Cherry Tree Carol. In the Child Ballads, it is number 54; and its text is given in four versions. The carol is number 66 in the Oxford Book of Carols, where four different tunes are given and eighteen verses, the first ten being a legendary story, the next five telling the Christmas story, and the last three being appropriate for Lent and Passiontide.

In its most popular version, the carol tells how when Joseph was an old man, he married virgin Mary, “the queen of Galilee.” They are walking in a garden full of berries and cherries, and Mary asks Joseph to gather her some cherries, “for I am with child.” Angrily, Joseph answers, “Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee!” Then the unborn Jesus in Mary’s womb commands the tree to bend down to give his mother the fruit: “Then down bent the tallest branch till it touched Mary’s hand. / Said she, ‘O look thou, Joseph, I have cherries by command.’”

This is definitely an adult take on the Christmas story, none too flattering to Joseph, who is seen as profoundly human in his suspicion, his jealousy, and his anger. When he realizes the wrong he has done Mary, Joseph admits in Child’s first version of the carol, “I have done Mary wrong; / But cheer up, my dearest, and be not cast down.”

Because the carol and tune are products of the folk tradition, there are many versions of both text and melody. Some musicologists insist on referring not to the Cherry Tree Carol but to the Cherry Tree carols. In the original story in Pseudo-Matthew, this incident involves a palm, not a cherry tree, and takes place after the child’s birth during the flight into Egypt. Some version of the carol has been sung in England since the Coventry Plays performed during the feast of Corpus Christi in 1400. And when this carol, or carols, crossed the ocean to America, it evolved into at least three different carols: “The Cherry Tree,” “When Joseph Was an Old Man,” and “Oh Joseph Took Mary Up on His Right Knee.”

Details of the carol’s texts have been interpreted as symbolic: The cherries are as “red as any blood,” symbolizing, of course, the sacrificial death Jesus will suffer as an adult; Mary’s eating of the fruit under a tree in a garden stands in contrast to Eve’s eating the forbidden fruit in Eden. The actions of Mary and her child symbolize the undoing of the curse brought by Eve’s transgression: Eve is replaced by Mary, the first Adam by the second Adam, the tree of forbidden fruit by the tree of salvation.

A folk tune version of the carol (sometimes identified as the Kentucky Mountain Ballad Tune) was popularized during the folk revival of the 1960s by Joan Baez on her second album, Joan Baez, Vol. 2 (Vanguard, 1961). The text of her version is close to Child’s 54A, although her version stops with the seventh stanza, omitting the next five. Many other singers in both the folk and rock tradition have recorded the carol, including Pentangle, Emmylou Harris, and Sting. The best known choral versions of the carol with the traditional British melody (Number 66 Part 1 in The Oxford Book of Carols) have been arranged by Stephen Cleobury and David Willcocks; the Kentucky Mountain Ballad tune has been arranged by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker, among many others.

For further reading:

Percy Dearmer, Martin Shaw & Ralph Vaughan Williams, editors. The Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford University Press, 1928).

Lisa Spangenberg. “The Cherry-Tree Carol,” Celtic Studies Resources,

William E. Studwell and Frank Hoffmann. The Christmas Carol Reader (Routledge Press, 1995)

“The Cherry Tree Carol,” Hymns and Songs of Christmas, 

“The Cherry-Tree Carol,” Wikipedia,

“The Cherry-Tree Carol,”

“The Cherry Tree Carol,”

About this week’s writer:

Jim Garvey attended Catholic seminary for six years, but left to study for a Ph. D. in English literature; now retired from college teaching, he is a freelance writer and a member of St. John United Methodist Church in Augusta, GA.

This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts. 
For more information about The Fellowship, visit

Discipleship Ministries
The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts


Categories: History of Hymns