Friday, July 17, 2015

Josephology Part 11: The English Go Cherry Picking

“When Joseph was an olden man, / He lived full many a year, a year, / He courted and wedded the Queen of Heav’n, / And called her his dear.”

Not too long before Spain started getting creative with their Josephite devotion, England was proudly handing down the ancient tradition of St. Joseph as an elderly, concupiscible widower in their hymns and mystery plays.

The Cherry-Tree Carol

Known most widely in America as an Appalachian ballad, the Cherry-Tree Carol actually has its roots in Medieval England and the Coventry mystery plays performed at the feast of Corpus Christi around AD 1400. The events narrated in the song are apparently a modification of the Flight into Egypt as told in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. In that apocryphal work, the fleeing family takes their rest beneath the shade of a palm tree. The Virgin expresses her desire for one of the tree’s fruits, but Joseph declares the branches to be too high, and goes looking for water instead. The Christ Child commands the tree to bend down so his mother can eat its fruit, and it does.

The Cherry-Tree Carol changes the palm tree to a cherry tree, and removes the incident from the context of the Flight to Egypt. In some versions of the carol, Joseph is angered by the request, and bluntly tells the Virgin to ask the father of her Child to gather cherries for her. Sometimes the toddler Christ Child playfully commands the tree to bow down, but in other versions Mary is still pregnant. (A much longer examination of the carol’s history and variations can be found at the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website.)

When Joseph was a old man,
A old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary,
The Queen of Galilee.

Then Mary spoke to Joseph
So sweet and so mild:
Joseph, gather me some cherries,
For I am with child.

Then Joseph flew in anger,
In anger flew he:
Let the father of the baby
Gather cherries for thee.

Then Jesus spoke a few words,
A few words spoke he:
Let my Mother have some cherries,
Bow low down, cherry tree.

The cherry tree bowed low down,
Bowed low down to the ground,
And Mary gathered cherries,
While Joseph stood around.

Then Joseph took Mary
All on his right knee.
What have I done, Lord?
Have mercy on me.

Then Joseph took Jesus
All on his left knee.
Tell me, little baby,
When thy birthday will be.

The sixth day of January
My birthday will be,
When the stars in the elements
Shall tremble with glee.

Here is a version sung by the folksinger Shirley Collins:

The artist Daniel Mitsui describes the historical circumstances of the carol:
The story had been acted in the pre-Tridentine Coventry Mystery Plays performed each year at Corpus Christi, and it at this celebration that the carol probably originated. The song, but not the pageant, survived the Reformation, remaining in the popular consciousness of England long after it was forgotten by Catholics raised in the new Tridentine spirit of literalism, and its complete re-imagining of the old and humble St. Joseph (the only St. Joseph known to the first three quarters of Christian history, on whose memory the trustworthiness of all revelation depends) into a more marketable handsome young man.
While the Cherry-Tree Carol is an oversimplification of the Nativity story traditions that came from the Proto-Gospel of James, it still crudely retains the basic elements of those traditions: Joseph is old, a bit of a crank, and suspicious of Mary’s virtue. The overflowing of miracles around the Nativity and the childhood of Christ are also on display.

Joseph’s Troubles about Mary

The mystery play cycles were a popular Medieval production in which the whole of sacred history was recapitulated on the stage, from Creation to Passion to Judgment. Often the entire cycle would be performed in one day or over a few days at Corpus Christi. Some of these plays took great liberties with tradition and the scriptural text—for example, Noah’s wife is quite the doubting shrew in many cycles—but for the most part they followed the popular beliefs of the time. The events surrounding the Nativity follow the narratives of the Proto-Gospel of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew where they are not being entirely inventive (such as with the Wakefield Shepherds’ Plays).

The York cycle of plays features one play specifically about Joseph’s suspicious reaction to the Incarnation, bluntly titled Joseph’s Troubles about Mary. It begins in media res, right after Joseph has discovered his wife’s pregnancy. He monologues about the poor hand he has been dealt (the modernization of Richard Beadle and Pamela King is used below),
For shame what shall I say,
That thus-gates not on mine old days
Have wedded a young wench to my wife...
Now Lord, how long shall I lead this life?
He recounts the story of his betrothal to Mary, complete with the test of the budding staff, and is “beguiled—how, wot I not / My young wife is with child full great.” Yet, as broadly as he is portrayed, he is not simply a comedic cuckold. He cannot reconcile his wife’s apparent virtue with her apparent vice—“And loath methinketh, on the other side, / My wife with any man to defame”—and he calls to mind the messianic prophecies—“But well I wot through prophecy / A maiden clean should bear a child, / But it is not she, [truly].”

He decides to cross-examine his wife, who has defenders in her maiden companions. They tell Joseph that an angel would come daily to bring Mary food (one of the ancient elaborations on the Jacobian narrative), and he sees here a way of maintaining her naiveté without entirely letting her off the hook,
Then see I well your meaning is
The angel has made her with child.
Nay, some man in angel’s likeness
With somekin gaud has her beguiled.
He asks Mary repeatedly whose the child is, and her answer is always the same: “Sir, God’s and yours.... Yours sir, and the king’s of bliss.... Sir, it is yours and God’s will.... God and you,” etc. Joseph will not be convinced, and he wanders into the wilderness to pray and ask for a sign of God’s will. He sleeps with a heavy heart, is visited by the angel Gabriel, and is relieved of his burden.
Now, Lord God, full well is me
That ever that I this sight should see,
I was never ere so light....
My back fain would I bow
And ask forgiveness now,
Wist I thou would me hear.
Mary waves off the need for forgiveness, and the happy couple begin their trek to Bethlehem. For, as Gabriel says, “this [very] night / There shall a child born be.”

This play has very close parallels with other mystery play cycles. Joseph’s complaint against Mary does not usually have its own play, but is folded into another one, like that of the Annunciation. Here is an example of that story being performed:

For all of his flaws, the St. Joseph of the mystery plays remains a good man trapped in a seemingly bad situation. He is clearly older, and bemoans the fact that he was pushed into taking this young girl as a wife. He does not wish to jump to conclusions about his wife, but cannot see any other options except that she cheated on him. From Gabriel’s visit onward, he remains Mary’s humble and pious companion.

St. Joseph, not given to cherry-picking what you believe, pray for us! (source)


  1. Interesting how St Joseph to the English (and to most Christians) has been the most human and understandable figure in the Nativity of the Lord, as though Christ as God and Mary as the all pure Virgin are distant; Joseph was a more identifiable figure.

    Also, January 6th as the birthday of Christ made me smile!