It’s called “The Cherry-Tree Carol,” and I’m sure you’ve heard a version at one time or another. Joan Baez did one. There’s also a rendition–exceptionally eerie and haunting–by Judy Collins.
I doubt if any two vocalists sing it with quite the same words. It’s a traditional song, which means no one knows where it came from, and the precise contents depend on who’s doing the singing.
The folklorist Francis James Child collected four different versions. Here’s the first of them, which is close to the one Judy Collins used:
“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,
so meek and so mild:
‘Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
for I am with child.’
O then bespoke Joseph,
with words most unkind:
‘Let him pluck thee a cherry
that got thee with child.’
O then bespoke the babe,
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 cheer up, my dearest,
and be not cast down.’
Then Mary plucked a cherry,
as red as the blood,
then Mary went home
with her heavy load.
Then Mary took her babe,
and sat him on her knee,
Saying, My dear son, tell me
what this world will be.
‘O I shall be as dead, mother,
as the stones in the wall;
O the stones in the streets, 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.'”
“Poor Joseph,” says Judy Collins. There’s no denying that Joseph, who doesn’t much trust his pretty young wife-to-be, cuts a hapless, pathetic figure. I recall having heard on the radio one version of the seventh stanza: “The cherry tree bowed over / Way over to the ground / And Mary gathered cherries / While Joseph stood around.” You can practically see him “standing around,” humiliated and befuddled. The heart aches for the old gent, who must have wished he’d chosen to marry someone other than “the queen of Galilee.” (As yet another version calls her.)
The carol took me aback when I first heard it, I think as a teenager. Nowhere near as much, though, as I was taken aback a few years later, when I came upon the carol’s story in–of all places–the Qur’an.
It’s in the nineteenth surah (“chapter”) of the Muslim holy book, the surah that’s appropriately titled “Maryam,” “Mary.” Though she’s never been touched by any man, Mary has conceived a child …
“… and withdrew with him
to a distant place.
And the birthpangs surprised her by
the trunk of the palm-tree. She said,
‘Would I had died ere this, and become
a thing forgotten!’
But the one that was below her
called to her, ‘Nay, do not sorrow;
see, thy Lord has set below thee
Shake also to thee the palm-trunk
and there shall come tumbling upon thee
dates fresh and ripe.
Eat therefore, and drink, and be
comforted; and if thou shouldst see
say, “I have vowed to the All-merciful
a fast, and today I will not speak to any man.”‘” (Arberry’s translation)
There are differences. Joseph and his jealousy play no role in the Qur’anic story. (I don’t think Mary’s husband appears anywhere in the Qur’an.) A Middle Eastern date-palm, naturally enough, stands in place of the European cherry tree. But the basic outline is there. And, as in the Christmas carol, baby Jesus goes on to prophesy his own death and resurrection:
“Mary pointed to the child then;
but they said, ‘How shall we speak
to one who is still in the cradle,
a little child?’
He said, ‘Lo, I am God’s servant;
God has given me the Book, and
made me a Prophet. …
Peace be upon me, the day I was born,
and the day I die, and the day I am
raised up alive!'”
All very Islamic. Jesus is a prophet, and only a prophet; God’s servant, not His Son. I wish I knew better how the story reverberated down centuries of popular Muslim piety, like the Christmas legends in medieval Europe. Surely it did reverberate. In his lovely novella The Wedding of Zein, set in the Sudan sometime around the 1950s, the late Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih mentions it among the wondrous omens of a magical evening. “… as he led them in prayer that night the Imam recited a section of the Chapter of Mary … ‘And shake towards thee the trunk of the palm tree, it will drop upon thee fresh dates fit to gather’ … a verse which is a particularly auspicious and blessed one.”
How did this tale migrate, with requisite botanical adjustments, from the Qur’an to a medieval English carol? The answer, of course, is that it didn’t. There had to be a shared source, some Mideastern Christian legend which carol and Qur’an both drew upon. Many scholars think they’ve found that source in chapter 20 of an apocryphal book called The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.
It makes sense. “Pseudo-Matthew” gives us the date-palm. The “rivulet” beneath Mary, which doesn’t quite fit into the Qur’anic narration, is a vital and natural part of Pseudo-Matthew’s story. The Cherry-Tree Carol also emerges nicely out of this background.
We’ll never be able to trace the details. But there’s no essential mystery in how the legend of Mary and her tree wandered from the lands of the date-palm to those of the cherry, from 7th-century Arabia to a 1996 Judy Collins concert, thumbing its nose in the process at the confessional boundaries over which people enjoy killing each other.
No mystery–but plentiful wonderment.
If religious dogmas divide us humans into warring camps, our hearts are bound together by the threads of marvel that these same religions spin in such profusion. Threads that bear the promise that the old angelic dream of world peace and goodwill may not be an impossible fantasy after all.
And that’s the story, for Christmas 2013.
by David Halperin
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