Another Look: The Imagination of Faith

Cherry Blossoms in the Snow. Photo by Mike Licht
Cherry Blossoms in the Snow. Photo by Mike Licht

What part does imagination play in faith? Can “truth” be communicated through legend, folk tales, poetry, and music?

Many Christmas songs have little to do with describing detailed historical facts. Instead, they evoke images from nature, the Biblical narratives, and the cultures from which they arise to help us not only understand but also feel the meaning and significance of the Incarnation.

One of my favorites is “The Cherry Tree Carol.” 

Joseph was an old man,
And an old man was he,
When he wedded Virgin Mary
In the land of Galilee.

Joseph and Mary walk’d
Through an orchard green,
Where were berries and cherries
As thick as might be seen.

Then bespoke Mary,
In voice so meek and mild,
“Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
For I am with child.”

O then bespoke Joseph
In a voice most unkind,
“Let him pluck thee a cherry
That brought thee with child.”

O then bespoke the babe
Within his mother’s womb,
“Bow down then the tallest tree
That my mother may have some.”

Then bow’d down the tallest tree
Unto his mother’s hand:
She said, “See, Joseph,
I have cherries at command!”

Additional verses of The Cherry Tree Carol are more of a “child ballad” than a Christmas carol. Mary takes the baby Jesus on her knee and he speaks to her of his eventual death and resurrection.

On the “Hymns and Carols of Christmas” site, an excerpt from The Penguin Book of Carols explains its background.

This delightful carol, which transports Mary and Joseph from the Holy Land to an English cherry orchard, is of considerable antiquity and is found in early printed broadsides from many different parts of the country. No two versions are the same but the essential theme of what for obvious reasons has become known as The Cherry Tree Carol is unmistakable.

There are several theories about the origins of the symbolism in this carol. Some folklorists point to the widespread use in folklore of the gift of a cherry, or similar fruit carrying its own seed, as a divine authentication of human fertility. . . .

The legend of the Cherry Tree is the lingering on of a very curious, mysterious tradition, common to the whole race of man, that the eating of the fruit in Eden was the cause of the descendant of Eve becoming the mother of Him who was to wipe away that old transgression. In the carol this tradition is strangely altered, but its presence cannot fail to be detected.

. . . Versions of The Cherry Tree Carol are found in virtually all the major collections made of traditional English carols in the nineteenth century, including Sandys’ Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modem (I833), Rimbault’s Collection of Old Christmas Carols (1861), Husk’s Songs of the Nativity (1864), Bramley and Stainer’s Christmas Carols, Old and New (1871) and A. H. Bullen’s Carols and Poems from the fifteenth century to the present time (1886). The longest and the earliest text in a printed book is in William Hone’s Ancient Mysteries Described (1822). The eighteen-verse version I give here, which follows that in The Oxford Book of Carols and is also the one printed in W. J. Phillips’s Carols: Their Origin, Music, and Connection with Mystery Plays(I921), is the longest known and is made by putting material together from several different sources.

Others maintain that the origins of the story told in this carol go back to the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew which recounts how during their flight into Egypt, Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus rest under the shade of a palm tree. Mary asks Joseph to pick her some of the fruit, only to be met with the tetchy response that there are more important things to attend to. At this point, Jesus speaks and immediately the tree bows down to enable Mary to gather fruit from its branches. Joseph is filed with remorse and asks Mary’s forgiveness. The Cherry Tree Carol may also draw on another apocryphal gospel, the  Protoevangelium of James which describes Joseph’s doubts about the paternity of Jesus and recounts a walk that he takes, while Mary is in labour in a cave outside Bethlehem, during which he encounters an angel.

This carol appeals to the imagination by portraying intimate human experience and feeling in a folk tale setting with miraculous elements and references to the gospel accounts of Jesus. It moves me deeply. As a child of Adam and Eve, who ate forbidden fruit, my heart rejoices in Him who, born of Eve’s daughter, tasted the fruit of death for me and opened the door to Paradise once more.

I believe one reason Christmas has such wide appeal is that there are so many ways the message of Christ comes to us during the season. Of course, at the root of it all is God’s word in scriptures, telling us how, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman.” (Gal 4:4) But think of all the other aspects that speak to our senses and imaginations — from candles and Christmas trees, to carols and stories and colors and songs. The season serves up a sumptuous feast for the senses that touches us through and through.

Here is my favorite version of The Cherry Tree Carol, performed by Judy Collins.

• • •Photo by Mike Licht at Flickr. Creative Commons License

9 thoughts on “Another Look: The Imagination of Faith

  1. That’s pretty much how I understand it, Dana. I’m surprised to learn this story is known and accepted in the Eastern wing, surprised and pleased. In the story I know, James (Jacob) was Joseph’s youngest son and about the same age as Mary, served as Jesus’ baby sitter. Thanks!


  2. Yes, Joseph being older would be unusual, but not unheard of. What Eastern Christianity has handed down about this is that Mary’s parents (who also were elderly when she was born) dedicated her to the Lord, and she lived in the Temple from age 3 until her betrothal as part of the corps of girls who wove the garments and hangings for the Temple. Often they were orphaned; some were dedicated as Mary was. This was actually rather an elite upbringing, even though somewhat restricted; the girls were well cared for, and it was the best life available for orphaned females, which Mary was later during her time of service. The priests and Levites found the girls good husbands, again saving them from begging from their relatives (if they had any) or a life of prostitution. It was considered an honorable thing to do, if one were an older man, to take one of these girls into your household, most often as your housekeeper/serving girl. Scandal was avoided by being officially married to her. This was the case with Joseph, who already had been married and had older children, and thus did not need heirs. The names in the NT given as those of Jesus’ brothers were actually those of his step-brothers, the sons of Joseph.

    When I first heard this, I was skeptical, so I tried an experiment. I knew there were nutty groups in Israel who are preparing for the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple, so I did an internet search with something like “group of women weavers for the Temple” – and sure enough, right near the top of the results was a link to the web site of one of those nutty groups. They have a band of adult women who are working on making those woven articles, and they even had photos of the high priest’s dress and other items. That was enough for me; like on Mythbusters, I said to myself, “Plausible!” The fact of Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, being married to a Temple priest, who could have been the one overseeing Mary’s upbringing and marriage, was also germane for me. Who did she go to when she need support for her unusual pregnancy? If she were actually orphaned by that time, it would be appropriate for her to go to Zacharias and Elizabeth for any kind of help.



  3. Sometimes the occasions to feel proud of my British heritage are few and far between, but this song would be one of them. It has a medieval feel to it. I am amazed at the recognition of Joseph as an old man, which almost never crosses anyone’s radar today. Even in our own promiscuous days it would be considered scandalous for an old man in his seventies with grown children to be engaged to a fourteen-year-old girl, never mind apparently getting her pregnant. What a way to start your mission as savior of the world.


  4. Judy Collins . . . . . magical.
    I saw her in the seventies in Washington D.C. and when she sang ‘Michael’, the man sitting in back of me said ‘my God’ . . . . it was that ethereal


  5. I love this carol, and have sung it in various forms. One version from Appalachia has an almost humorous image in the last line:

    Then bent down the tallest branch
    Way down to the ground,
    And Mary gathered cherries
    While Joseph stood around.


  6. I have heard literalists criticize the beautiful and poignant Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” because, when and where Jesus was born, there would’ve have been no “snow on snow” or “Water like a stone”. Never mind that the frozen imagery of the song’s poetry so well evokes the pervasive effects of sin in the heart and world; it’s much more important to stick with wooden literalism and historicity, poetry and meaning be damned!


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