The story of the cherry tree appears in a mystery play about the Nativity, in the cycle known as the the N-town plays, which probably derive from the wealthy cultural hub that was fifteenth-century Norfolk (...that sounds like sarcasm, but it's not!). The section relevant to the Cherry Tree Carol comes at the opening of the Nativity play, as Mary and Joseph are travelling to Bethlehem. This is my modernised version of the Middle English text, which can be found here.
JOSEPH Lord, what trouble for man is wrought!
Rest in this world there comes to him none.
Octavian, our emperor, firmly hath besought
Our tribute him to bear: folk must forth, each one,
It is cried in every town and city by name.
I that am a poor timber-wright,
Born of the blood of David,
The emperor's commandment I must hold with,
Or else I were to blame.
Now, my wife, Mary, what say ye to this?
For surely, needs I must forth wend
Unto the city of Bethlehem far hence, iwis,
Thus to labour I must my body bend.
MARIA My husband and my spouse, with you will I wend,
A sight of that city fain would I see.
If I might any of my family there find,
It would be great joy unto me!
JOSEPH My spouse, ye be with child; I fear you to carry,
For it seems to me it were a work wild, [a crazy thing to do]
But you to please right fain would I -
Yet women are easy to grieve when they are with child!
Now let us forth wend as fast as we may,
And Almighty God speed us in our journey.
[they set off...]
MARIA Ah, my sweet husband, would ye tell to me
What tree is yon, standing upon yon hill?
JOSEPH Forsooth, Mary, it is called a cherry tree.
In time of year, ye might feed thereon your fill.
MARIA Turn again, husband, and behold yon tree,
How that it bloometh now so sweetly!
JOSEPH Come on, Mary, that we may sleep at yon city,
Or else we may be blamed, I tell you hastily.
MARIA Now, my spouse, I pray you to behold
How the cherries grow upon yon tree;
To have thereof right glad I would be,
If it pleased you to labour so much for me.
JOSEPH Your desire to fulfill I shall assay, certainly.
Ow! To pluck you of these cherries, it is a work wild,
For the tree is so high, it will not be easy!
Let him pluck you cherries who got you with child.
MARIA Now, good Lord, I pray thee, grant me this boon,
To have of these cherries, if it be your will.
Now I thank God - this tree boweth to me down!
I may now gather enough and eat my fill.
JOSEPH Ow! I know well I have offended my God in Trinity,
Speaking to my spouse these unkind words,
For now I believe well it may none other be
But that my spouse beareth the King's Son of bliss.
May he help us now at our need.
Of the kindred of Jesse, worthily were ye born:
Kings and patriarchs go before.
All these worthy of your kindred were,
As clerks in story read.
MARIA Now, gramercy, husband, for your report. [words]
On our way wisely let us forth wend.
The Father Almighty, may he be our comfort;
The Holy Ghost glorious, may he be our friend.
Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 88v)
The story of the tree which miraculously bends down its branches for Mary has its ultimate roots in a miracle performed by the baby Jesus on the flight into Egypt, described in the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew:
And it came to pass on the third day of their journey, while they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree. Joseph therefore made haste, and led her to the palm, and made her come down from her beast. And as the blessed Mary was sitting there, she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm. And Joseph said to her: I wonder that thou sayest this, when thou seest how high the palm tree is; and that thou thinkest of eating of its fruit. I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle. Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed. And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who had commanded it to stoop. Then Jesus said to it: Raise thyself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father; and open from thy roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from thee. And it rose up immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling. And when they saw the spring of water, they rejoiced with great joy, and were satisfied, themselves and all their cattle and their beasts. Wherefore they gave thanks to God.
Parts of Pseudo-Matthew were translated into English as early as the Anglo-Saxon period, and its apocryphal stories about Mary and the childhood of Christ have long been part of Christian tradition. The development of the legend to place this event before the birth of Christ rather than afterwards makes it possible to incorporate the aspect of Joseph's distress over Mary's pregnancy, a popular subject in folk carols; compare 'Marvel not, Joseph', 'When righteous Joseph wedded was', and 'Joseph being an aged man' (or as I like to think of it, the 'dearest dear' carol). The Cherry Tree Carol was and is still the foremost example of this theme. The carol has many different variant forms - attesting to its widespread popularity - but here's one version:
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.
Joseph and Mary walked
Through an orchard green
Where was berries and cherries
As thick as might be seen.
O then bespoke Mary,
With words so meek and mild,
'Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
For I am with child.'
O then bespoke Joseph,
With answer most unkind,
'Let him pluck thee a cherry
That brought thee now with child.'
O then bespoke the baby
Within his mother's womb,
'Bow down then the tallest tree
For my mother to have some.'
Then bowed down the highest tree,
Unto his mother's hand.
Then she cried, 'See, Joseph,
I have cherries at command.'
O then bespake Joseph,
'I have done Mary wrong;
But now cheer up, my dearest,
And do not be cast down.
'O eat your cherries, Mary,
O eat your cherries now,
O eat your cherries, Mary,
That grow upon the bough.'
Then Mary plucked a cherry,
As red as any blood;
Then Mary she went homewards
All with her heavy load.
Perhaps the most famous choral setting is this chirpy, dancey arrangement by Stephen Cleobury:
I like this a lot, but it's the folk versions which really have my heart. Here are two from youtube, first Jean Ritchie:
And the British band Kerfuffle:
There are lots more on youtube, but if I attempted to be comprehensive we'd be here all day!
It is so wonderful to me that the key line "Let him pluck you cherries who got you with child" is the same in the carols as in the play. Stories passed down in oral tradition often centre on one single line like this - and it's usually a line of dialogue, a memorable utterance or a joke or a pun - and while the details of the story change, the central line remains stable. These varying details are nonetheless worth savouring. The versions which locate the incident in an orchard, instead of by the roadside, highlight an elegant contrast to the couple and the tree of the Garden of Eden: Mary is the opposite of Eve (her 'Ave' reversed Eve's very name) and so here the woman asks her husband for fruit, rather than offering it. I also like how some of the folk versions call Mary 'Queen of Galilee'; the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew has a story about Mary's childhood where, as she is weaving cloth with other young girls, the girls laughingly tell her 'because you are the youngest, and you weave the fine white cloth, you can be our queen'. An angel appears and tells them that they are right: Mary will be queen of all the world. (This story was translated into Old English, where Mary was to be, of course, 'queen of middle earth'.) The characterisation of a jealous Joseph in this story is perhaps not surprising, but it is remarkable to find Mary exulting in her triumph: 'See, Joseph, I have cherries at command!' Queen or not, a wheedling, cherry-craving, exulting Mary is a more human figure than Christian literature usually permits the Virgin to be.
The carol continues:
As Joseph was a-walking,
He heard an angel sing:
'This night there shall be born
On earth our heavenly King;
'He neither shall be born
In housen nor in hall,
Nor in the place of Paradise,
But in an ox's stall.
'He neither shall be clothed
In purple nor in pall,
But all in fair linen
As wear the babies all.
'He neither shall be rocked
In silver nor in gold,
But in the wooden cradle
That rocks upon the mould.
'He neither shall be christened
In white wine nor red,
But with fair spring water
As we were christened.'
Then Mary took her young son,
And set him on her knee:
Saying, 'My dear son, tell me,
Tell how this world shall be.'
'O I shall be as dead, mother,
As stones are in the wall;
O the stones in the streets, mother,
Shall sorrow for me all.
'On Easter-day, dear mother,
My rising up shall be;
O the sun and the moon, mother,
Shall both arise with me.'
My favourite version of the carol is sung by Waterson:Carthy (not, alas, on youtube); this site gives the source of their lyrics:
Joseph was an old man, an old man was he,
When he married sweet Mary, she's Queen of Galilee.
Now Joseph had wedded Mary and home had her brought.
Mary proved with child, but Joseph knew her not.
Oh, Joseph and Mary went walking in the grove,
They saw cherries and berries as red as any rose.
And up spoke young Mary, so meek and so mild,
“Oh, pick me cherries, Joseph, for I am with child.”
Then Joseph flew in anger, in anger flew he,
“Let the father of your baby pick cherries for thee.”
Then up spoke the baby Jesus, all in his mother's womb,
“Bow down low, you cherry tree, let my mother have some.”
And the very tall branches bowed low to her knee,
And Mary picked cherries by one, two and three.
Now Mary had a young son which she dandled on her knee,
“Come tell me, sweet baby, what will this world be?”
“Oh, this world,” he said, “is no other than stones in the street
But the sun, moon, and stars will sail under thy feet.
“And I must not be rocked in silver or gold
But in some wooden cradle like the babes are rocked all.
“And on the sixth day of January my birthday will be,
When the skies and the elements will tremble for me.”
Those last four verses are just wonderful - "the sun, moon, and stars will sail under thy feet!" The baby Christ predicting his future is a device used in a number of medieval carols, of which my favourite is 'As I lay upon a night' (at nearly forty verses long, surely the most extensive example); also relevant is the carol 'Under a tree', where the pregnant Virgin imagines her future with her holy child. Like the Cherry Tree Carol, these poems are interested in the interplay between human and divine knowledge - what Mary knows but Joseph doesn't, what the baby Christ knows but Mary doesn't, and what nature knows and the human characters don't - and in narrative time, positioning themselves at a moment in history when the events of the Gospel were the future in human time and not the distant past. It's all a kind of thought experiment with ignorance and knowledge, as if to better approach an understanding of the moment when Wisdom entered into the human world. It is important that the natural world understands this better than the humans do - not only the cherry tree, but also the stones in the street and the 'skies and elements', which will wordlessly acknowledge Christ even while Mary still hardly knows what he is.
I like the Cherry Tree Carol, and I'm glad that people still sing it, but there's a disconnect between the way this carol is usually presented today and my own response to this story. It's this: modern audiences seem to find the story funny, and I don't. The usual tone in modern references to the carol is a cutesy knowing kind of attitude towards Joseph's frustration - exemplified by the introduction to this otherwise perfectly nice rendering of the song - with implicit agreement that we clever moderns, starting with that honorary modern Chaucer (who may be partly parodying this story in The Merchant's Tale), can rather patronisingly enjoy the naivety of this simple tale. I can see the appeal of the light-hearted approach, and humanising the story in this way does have its advantages, but for me it takes away the whole power of the thing. I know I'm an outlier; most people seem to like the funny bits of medieval culture far more than the serious stuff, and just as I may be the only person in the world who prefers manuscript images of saints and angels to the quirky marginalia which surrounds them, I may also be the only person who prefers a serious take on the Cherry Tree Carol! Certainly the N-town play is supposed to be humorous, but the story itself is strange and angry and raw, and to take away any of that by winky jokes about cuckoldry and old men with young wives (as the play rather does, though the carols don't) is to lose a great deal.
There is big, dark, difficult stuff here. The Cherry Tree Carol finds what's unpredictable in the story of the Incarnation, what's dangerous about it: an angry man caught up in events he cannot understand or control, a child speaking from the womb, a tall tree which suddenly bows low, a baby who says he will make the skies tremble. Gods should be unpredictable; they should be outside human knowledge. One of the things which appeals to me most about medieval Christianity, by contrast with the modern variety, is that it has space for these kind of strange, uncomfortable stories. If you want a religion which appears reasonable and amenable and sophisticated and modern (and certainly not that dreaded word, medieval), you have to take away these myths and miracles, leaving only what can be argued about; this is how we get a church which can only talk about ethics and law and morality, without ever mentioning mystery and wonder and the supernatural. It bears the same relationship to medieval Christianity as the Thor superhero movies do to the dark, violent, world-shaking gods of Norse myth (even they do a better job of balancing comedy with the mythic than most Christian preachers manage today...). Earlier this year I spent a period of time utterly absorbed in Norse mythology, more deeply than I have ever been before, and although I've always found it interesting I for the first time found it moving, powerful, and real. I almost wept for the killing of Baldr, the bright innocent thing whose death is the beginning of the end of the world; I was almost afraid at the apocalyptic chaos of Ragnarok, when all fettered evil things go free. I came closer than ever before to understanding what C. S. Lewis meant when he talked in Surprised by Joy about Norse myth seeming to him, as a teenager,
a bigger thing than my religion... because my attitude toward it contained elements which my religion ought to have contained and did not. It was not itself a new religion, for it contained no trace of belief and imposed no duties. Yet unless I am greatly mistaken there was in it something very like adoration... Sometimes I can almost think that I was sent back to the false gods there to acquire some capacity for worship against the day when the true God should recall me to Himself.
So I come to Christmas this year wondering why Norse myth does seem to me 'bigger' than Christianity, and why Christmas, in particular, feels so small. Part of it is simple familiarity, but it's also cultural. When I was a child I had an anthology of Christmas poems which included the Cherry Tree Carol, illustrated with Mary and Joseph depicted as little children, as if in an infant school's nativity play. The book was lovely, but that's utterly wrong (and a tiny bit creepy). I don't mind a cosy Christmas, but I do object to a nursery-school one - as if there is nothing in the story of the Incarnation which can occupy the mind and the imagination of anyone above the age of five. Leave 'Away in a Manger' for the children, and let adults keep the Cherry Tree Carol! We all know that 'Christmas is for the children' (and their parents), but it has to mean something for the rest of the world too; just because it involves babies and stars and donkeys doesn't mean it has to be safe and comfy. It should be strange and unfamiliar, every year. The Cherry Tree Carol seems to me like the exact opposite of the comparisons well-meaning preachers like to bring out at Christmas - 'Mary was a single mother! Mary and Joseph were refugees!' That kind of thing exploits the Gospel story to make it prove whatever point the preacher wants to highlight (worthy issues, of course); it makes the story smaller and safer, reframes it in our terms, so that the people in it become projections of our society's opinions and experiences. The Cherry Tree Carol, despite the very English setting of a cherry-orchard, does the opposite: it digs deep into the mythic heart of the story and strips away the cosiness and the familiarity to get to the core of strangeness. It becomes a story in a true sense, not a pretty picture but a narrative, with its characters real people who can feel big emotions like anger and shock and fear. While the terrifying baby of the Cherry Tree Carol is not as capricious as the entirely wise but utterly irrational Odin (or as cruel as Christ is shown to be in some folk carols, like On Christmas Day), he is much closer to myth than to our idea of rational religion. We should find this story scary; what's the point of an incarnation that doesn't shake the world?