November 26, 2020

The Imagination of Faith

Cherry Trees in Winter, Kelsey

By Chaplain Mike

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 that touches us through and through.

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


  1. Lovely post, Chaplain Mike. Thank you.
    I remember hearing Judy Collins in concert at Wolf Trap near D.C., oh about forty years ago. What an experience! There was a song she sang about ‘Martin’ that was so haunting.
    And us old-timers will never forget her version of ‘Suzanne’.

  2. Lovely – this “new-timer” had never heard Judy Collins before, and this was a perfect introduction.

  3. Mike, I think there is something really important here, but maybe I’m too tired to get my head around it to give it much thought. I’m glad you brought it up.

    Because we are “chips off the ole block,” being sons and daughters of God the creator (the great imaginer) . . . we are bursting with creativity and imagination. In God’s likeness we are dreamers and our dreaming is always a prelude to our future actions and the key to understanding those of the past. Hebrews II is full of dreamers. These faith heroes suffered much but never seeing (on this earth) the realization of that hope . . . except with the eyes of their imaginations.

    Great song too.

  4. Another Mary says

    I love it . Thanks for the post.

  5. A very neat poem.

  6. I’m glad that you folks like this carol, but I am surprised. It feels like Pseudo-Matthew or some of the more “religious” stories collected by the Grimm brothers. I can enjoy it as a piece of medieval vocal music, but I must reject it in a Christian context.
    I cheer on the use of imagination and creativity within our Christian lives and practice, but am very wary of anything that might make a poor case for Christianity. Given the dearth of Biblical knowledge in our 21st century American culture, I suspect that a significant portion of the population would think this was part of the Biblical message.
    Let our creativity be expressed in the direction of scripture, not against it.

    • Sorry, couldn’t disagree more. I think I could use a folk tale like this to make an excellent case for Christianity. That’s why we talk about people like C.S. Lewis on this site.

      • notice that Jesus spoke in parables that we might better understand and warned against an exacting and strict interpretation of the law………………

      • First, let me say that I have an avid interest in and enjoyment of (primarily European) folk tales and am an amateur medieval historian.
        Second, while I am weak and prone to phariseeism I can also be tempted to antinomianism. I suspect I’m like many in this regard.
        Third, most of the folks who visit this site have some theological or biblical education; this includes the largely self-taught.

        Now, I would like to hear from anyone out there who sang this in high school choir, or the equivalent. What sort of impressions did it make on you and your (ignorant and educated) fellows?

        I don’t doubt that a skilled or imaginative teacher could use this as a jumping off place for the Gospel or Biblical truth. I’d be willing to try. In the course of teaching at my church, I have found numbers of people with extra-biblical ideas, post-modern paradigms and weak knowledge of scripture. (I teach apologetics, mainly.) I suspect that a significant portion of those who have listened to this (and other sub-biblical Christmas songs) think they are hearing the teaching of the Church, if not the Bible itself.

        Good talking w/ you .

  7. Griffon,

    I can’t speak to hearing this song and what impressions it made on me or my peers. I had never heard it before now. However, I do have one observation. If we are desperately trying to preserve the “historical” Jesus then I think we risk rejecting the living Word. The one that walks beside me now. I think one of the most fascinating things to see in history is what the message of the coming of Christ does to a culture. When the people grasp Christ, He never whitewashes their culture into some sort of conformity. Instead their symbols, folklore, songs, all seem to suddenly awaken to what they really meant all along. It’s as if all culture, mythology, etc was really telling the same story without knowing it. Then the Story put on flesh and joined our world. He still walks today. I think we have to stop being so afraid of the the diluting of scripture. The entire point of scripture is to introduce the living Word anyway. Let’s stop trying to preserve a corpse and really believe that He is actively redeeming ALL things right now. Thanks for the discussion.