The Cherry Tree Carol is a seasonal jewel. It dates back to the cycle of mystery plays performed in Coventry during the Feast of Corpus Christi, around the year 1400. History has brought to life various renditions of it, all of them indebted to the vagaries of memory, an era’s substitution of newer phrasings for antiquated ones, or simply the preferences of singers. Folklorists, liturgists and musicologists agree that it is really more accurate to speak of a Cherry Tree series than of a single carol.
But for me, there is only one golden variant. Every year, and with liturgical patience, I wait for Advent so that I can play Paul Hillier’s fertile, musically captivating arrangement for his Theatre of Voices. Ensemble singing does not get any lovelier than this.
A great part of my delight in the carol lies in its rendering of a very human Joseph, more assertive than the meek onlooker of conventional variants, the add-on of too, too many nativity scenes. Hilliard’s Joseph is a ballad figure closer to Titian’s visualization of him in The Madonna with Cherries. (Of the two men, Joseph is the darksome one on the left; the graybeard is Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, who offers the cherries.) The carol begins:
When Joseph was a young man,
A young man was he,
He court’d the Virgin Mary the Queen of Galilee.
The carol omits the more common verb married. You can just see him, not the aged caretaker of a virgin, but newly betrothed, and entranced with a young girl. They are out walking, he and his queen. It is a lovely stroll through an orchard of apple and cherry trees, all heavy with fruit. Suddenly Mary startles him with: “Joseph, gather me some cherries, for I am with child.” She had to have been waiting for the moment.
Her disclosure is no easy one for a man in love to swallow. The tempo of the carol quickens to convey the catch in Joseph’s heart:
And Joseph flew in anger,
In anger he flew.
Let the father of the baby gather cherries for you.
Good for Joseph! There is no earthly reason a good man should take kindly to the humiliation of having been cuckolded. The robust carol-making mind had no difficulty imagining a masculine response. It is not the one expected from the neutered bystander popular piety has made of the man who taught his son more than simply the family trade.
An observant Jew, Joseph guided the boy’s study of the Torah; took him to the Temple for the feasts of Pesach, Sukkot and Yom Kippur. He taught his son what it meant to be a Jewish male in Roman occupied Galilee. It is no stretch to think he told his boy the story of Judah Maccabee and his brothers. A chronicle dear to late Second Temple Judaism, it was a polestar to the virtue of anger. That Joseph’s son learned such a lesson has been drained out of gospel readings for so many years we have forgotten Jesus’ stark reference to the viper’s nest, the millstone, and the doors of the wedding feast open to some, closed to the balance.
Joseph deserves better. My beloved carol grants Joseph that burst of anger which was certainly his due. Other renditions in the doubting Joseph repertoire register Josephs dismay, but most keep a polite distance from any novelistic quote. They nod to his state in a more detached fashion:
Then Joseph he to shun the shame
Thought her for to forsake.
In most variants, it is God’s angel who visits Joseph in a dream and puts him straight. Hillier’s fertile adaptation diverges from the common trope. It bypasses the angel and, consistent with the earliest versions, turns to the awaited babe. There is a brief hush in vocal pitch: sound comes muffled from the womb. The unborn Jesus does not chide Joseph or offer justification. Mystery eludes explanation. Instead, the infant—fledgling king that he is—charges the cherry tree to lower its boughs that the mother might have some. The tree obeys. Mary gathers cherries “while Joseph stood around:”
Cried she, Look, thou Joseph!
I have cherries by command!
Girlish glee leaps in those lines; and no small spot of triumph, too. Joseph understands. Aching with remorse for having thought unkindly of his beloved, he whispers to the child: Pray, tell me, little baby, when your birthday will be? An ingenious device. Again, a direct quote, imagined in sympathy with a man who, with that single tender question, indicates acceptance of this strange paternity. Set aside the mystery and austerity of it, fatherhood it remains. And Joseph bows to it.
In this sweet carol we hear Joseph’s terse, elliptical Magnificat: Pray, tell me, little baby, when your birthday will be?
So like a man to phrase consent that way.
Joy to you, dear readers. Christ, our Saviour, is born on Christmas Day.
Note: This essay first appeared on First Things, December 2013, under the title “Joseph’s Magnificat.”