1. The Cherry Tree Carol is a haunting story of the mystery and beauty of Christmas derived from one of the apocryphal Gospels, that of Psuedo- Matthew, which is also know as The Infancy Gospel of Matthew.
In this now popular Christmas carol, Joseph and Mary are walking near or through an orchard of cherry trees. She asks Joseph to pick some cherries for her because she is with child and would appreciate a helping hand. Joseph, as husbands tend to do when they discover their wives are pregnant and they know they are not the father, gets angry and tells her to just let the guy who got her pregnant get the cherries for her. No doubt dejected and feeling rejected, Mary knows not what to do.
But then a voice cries out from within his mother’s womb. It’s the voice of Jesus who commands the cherry trees bow down so that his mother may have something to eat. The trees do what any tree would do if ordered by Jesus, they bow down and Mary exclaims to the effect of “Hey Joseph, look, I can get all the cherries I want, nyah nyah.” Joseph then realizes that there’s more going on than he at first realized.
Now in the Psuedo-Gospel of Matthew, Chapter Twenty, the story as one might expect, is a bit different, but the similarities are clear. In this version, thought to be the inspiration for The Cherry Tree Carol, Mary, Joseph and a very infant Jesus are in the desert in Egypt and are exhausted from the heat. They come across a date palm tree where they rest. Mary asks Joseph for some dates, but they are pretty high up in the tree and he whines about it saying that instead she should be concerned because of the lack of water and their thirst. The baby Jesus orders the date palm to lower it’s branches and his Mother is able to eat. Now the date palm, being humble and worshipful, did not rise back up after she had eaten, but rather it awaited Jesus’ command. Jesus tells it to rise, says it will have its place in paradise, and then he makes one more request of it – something interesting in light of the Quranic version of this story that I will discuss below. He asks it to provide water through one of its hidden roots and it does so – providing clear, cool and sparkling water for the three of them and their animals.
2. Many features of the Cherry Tree Carol and the story from which it is derived are found in the Quranic version of the story in Surah 19, verses 16-34. In this version Joseph is noticeably absent, an absence which highlights the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth. The angel Gabrielle appears to Mary, who has gone away from her people for some sort of religious purpose, in fully human form and tells her she will give birth to a son. She is astonished by this and asks how on earth that could be possible since she has never been touched by a man. Gabrielle tells her that this is easy for God and that her son will be sent as a mercy to mankind.
So she is now with child and is driven to a date palm tree during the pains of childbirth, pains so severe she wishes she had never been born. But then a voice cries out – said by commentators to be that of Gabrielle though in my own view it could even be that of Jesus – who tells her that all is well and that water has been provided for her beneath her feet. He then tells her to shake the date-palm and that fresh and ripe dates will come pouring down. He tells her to eat and drink and “cool thine eye.” Lastly the voice commands her that if she comes across any man to say that she has vowed to speak to no one that day.
The next thing we see is Mary carrying her new baby back to her people who challenge her morality, as she had no doubt expected and feared. But keeping to her command, she said nothing to them and merely pointed to her baby. The crowd mocked her telling her that they could not possibly converse with a new born. At this point, the baby Jesus performs his own version of “enough is enough” as he addresses the crowd in no uncertain terms telling them, among other things, that God has made him a prophet and that he is to be blessed wherever he is. He also tells them that he has been commanded to be faithful to his mother, something he clearly intends to do. No doubt the audience was dumb struck. . .
The new-born Jesus then closes: “And peace be upon me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I am raised up alive.”
Merry Christmas to you all, from all of us here at Mantiq al-Tayr.
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3. If you would like to hear a beautiful Arabic recitation of the Quranic version of the story, click here: Mary. To follow along with the English translation, Roman-letter transliteration, and also the original Arabic text, click here. See if you can hear the rhyme at the end of each verse.
And here is Judy Collins’ version of The Cherry Tree Carol.
4. Okay, I can’t close out the posts for the year without a reference to cats. The Anonymous Arabist would never permit this. So, if you are thinking of buying a cat for Christmas for an engineer, then you might want to watch this.