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Christmas with the Baltimore Consort

The Cherry Tree Carol

soprano, lute, cittern, bass viol

RealAudio 2.0, 14.4
RealAudio 2.0, 28.8

Text: based on a version collected by Cecil Sharp in Camborn, Cornwall, 1913. Tune: Collected by Cecil Sharp in Hindman, Knott County, Kentucky, 1917. Child Ballad no. 54

The legend of the cherry tree can be traced to the apochryphal Gospel of Pseudo- Matthew, which tells how Joseph and Mary, on the flight to Egypt, came upon a palm tree whose fruit was offered when the infant Jesus commanded the tree to bow down. By the time of the Coventry mystery plays, the palm had become a cherry, the destination was Jerusalem, and Jesus was still in utero.

The fifteenth play of the cycle includes a humorous dialogue in which Mary tries to bring the blooming tree to the attention of an impatient Joseph. Eager to make their appointment in Jerusalem, he notes that it is the wrong time of year for such a tree to bloom. Mary, insisting that she must have some cherries, is met by the further objection that the tree is too high. Knowing her own power, she finally prays that the Lord grant her wish and, to the amazement of the doubting Joseph, the tree bows down. In our version, Jesus speaks from the womb, ordering the tree to bow down, and Joseph, having suspected Mary of cuckolding him, is chastised.

The ballad ends with Jesus, now a young child, comparing this world and the next. It is interesting how images can migrate from one version to another and change their meaning in the process. The stones, sun, and moon appear as a portent of Jesus' martyrdom and resurrection in another version of the ballad:

O, I shall be as dead, mother, as the stones in the wall; O the stones in the street, mother, shall mourn for me all. Upon Easter-Day, mother, my uprising shall be; O the sun and the moon, mother, shall both rise with me (Sandys, 1833).

All of these images are biblical in origin. Stones symbolize the martyrdom of St. Stephen, and Mary is the "the woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet" in the Book of Revelation.

When Joseph was an old man,
An old man was he,
He courted our Mary,
The Queen of Galilee,

And when he had wedded her,
And home had her brought,
Mary proved to be with child,
But Joseph knew her not.

Then Joseph and Mary
Were a-walking in the grove,
They saw cherries and berries,
As red as any rose.

And Mary said to Joseph
In words meek and mild,
"Gather me some cherries, Joseph,
For I am with Child."

But Joseph said to Mary
In words so unkind,
"Let him gather thee cherries, Mary,
Who brought thee with child."

Then Jesus spoke unto the tree,
From within his mother's womb,
"Bow down, thou cherry tree
For my mother to have some."

And the highest branches bent as low
As Mother Mary's knee,
And she gathered of the cherries
by one, two and three.

Then Mary had a young son
Which she dandled on her knee,
And she said unto her fair child,
"What shall this world be?"

"This world", he said, "Is no other
Than the stones in the street;
but the sun, moon and stars,
Shall sail under thy feet."

Program notes by Mary Anne Ballard