Sunday, December 04, 2011


One of my favorite Christmas songs is the Cherry Tree Carol, based on a story from an apocryphal gospel. Joseph and the pregnant Mary are walking through an orchard. She, maybe because of the pregnancy, gets a yen for the cherries and asks him to pick her some. Joseph, none too pleased with the mysterious pregnancy situation, answers,

"Let him pick berries and let him pick cherries
That brought thee now with child."

It's such a typical interaction. Joseph and Mary are both feeling wronged. He's mad because someone knocked up his fiancée, and she's mad because she wants those cherries and can't go clambering around to get them. Plus she's just been insulted.

But because this is a story, a miracle happens and settles the argument. Unborn Jesus takes sides and tells the trees what to do.

Then bowed down the tallest tree
Into sweet Mary's hand.
Then Mary cried, "Oh, see now, Joseph!
I've cherries at command."

Mary is vindicated. Joseph, embarrassed, attempts an apology:

O, then bespoke old Joseph,
"I have done Mary wrong,
Cheer up, cheer up, my dearest dear,
And do not be cast down."

Arguments in real life don't work like this, but we wish they would. I often see this in social work clients (and myself): we act like if we can just prove how wronged we are, someone will take notice and rectify the situation. We would like the universe to announce: "You are right, and he is wrong." And we make up stories where it really does happen.

But in real life, there are no trees that bow down to settle arguments. The other person's hurt is as real as our own. There will not be a divine arbitration, so we have to patch things up as best we can.

And the carol echoes this: after the miracle, life goes on as usual.

So Mary picked one cherry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary and Joseph, they walked on homeward,
All with their heavy load.

I find this the most touching, most human part of a very human carol. We are all carrying heavy loads. We are all stumbling along in the dark, groping towards each other.


Alex K-G said...

I was just talking with Nicole about this, and turns out we know different tunes for it. I know the version the Amidons recorded, which is major, and Nicole knows a minor version, which reminds me of rousing sea music (but maybe that's just because Nicole is singing it).

Julia Wise said...

The most common version has a major tune and somewhat different words (the best line being "And Mary gathered cherries while Joseph stood around" - ouch.)

Nowell Sing We Clear are the only ones I've heard do this version, which has a minor tune, but I can't imagine it as "rousing." Maybe I just need to hear Nicole's version!