Cherries at Christmas – folk motifs (and the Second Shepherds’ Play)

December 20, 2011 at 5:32 am (Uncategorized)

The first time I read the Second Shepherds’ Play,[1] I was curious about where the cherries came from and what they meant.

The first shepherd says:

Hail, thou comely and clean one! Hail, young Child!
Hail, Maker, as I mean, from a maiden so mild!
Thou hast harried, I ween, the warlock so wild,—(725)
The false beguiler with his teen now goes beguiled.
Lo, he merries,
Lo, he laughs, my sweeting!
A happy meeting!
Here’s my promised greeting,—(730)
Have a bob of cherries! [1]

To which I said, basically, “What?”  Various readers and notes informed me that cherries were traditionally associated, variously, with Christmas, the Christ child, the shepherds, folk songs etc, but “it’s traditional” is never good enough for me. I want to know why it’s traditional, what it means, and where else I can see it in its native context, and won’t be satisfied with an anthology telling me “it’s traditional” or with various people’s guesses.  I’ve had some good class discussion speculating on the symbolism of the shepherds’ gifts, though.

I still haven’t sorted out the full context and weight of meaning, but I have over the years come across some traditional (in the sense of passed down and done all over as folk music and not attributed to any one composer) lyrics and tunes relating to the Christ child, or his mother, being given cherries at or near his Nativity.  There’s a tune called “The Cherry Tree Carol” that dates from at least the 15th century telling of a skeptical Joseph responding with spite to a pregnant Mary’s requests for him to pick her some cherries: “Let the father of your bastard child pick them for you!” he says in essence.  A miracle ensues in which the boughs bend down, through God’s power either from heaven or from in the womb, to themselves give Mary her cherries and Joseph his chastisement for doubting the paternity of Mary’s child.[3]

I recently found a performance of “Cherry Tree Carol” done at Durham Cathedral in 2009 as part of a programme with a rather amazing group of performers playing acoustic instruments, some medieval and early modern.  This was actually a Sting-engineered thing; regardless of what impression you’ve gotten from him over the years through the media, or your opinion of his music at any stage of his career (or your opinion of his beard in this recording), this performance is certainly worth a look/listen.  You’ll have to see clips from other songs in the programme in order to get the full impression of the ensemble and the instruments and arrangements here, as this clip – as are most recordings of Cherry Tree Carol I’ve heard – is pretty much a capella).

For those more interested in the instruments, there is at least one song featuring a very interesting instrument in the lute family (I believe – I am happy to corrected by those more knowledgeable).  It may be a theorbo, in fact, which has been known to inspire theorbo-envy in young guitarists, but I haven’t had time to track it down and be able to say for sure.   I don’t have time to track the clip down on youtube right now, but I’ll find it eventually.  Those interested in traditional fiddle may note that Kathyrn Tickell is featured here, and given room to do her thing; she’s delightful and I love her — and so is a young relation of hers, Peter Tickell, who is simply astounding. I’m not entirely rational when it comes to stringed instruments, in all fairness, and in fact there were a few tracks where I wished there were no vocals. But if there *must* be such a thing as holiday albums, more should be like this.  (If I never hear “Winter Wonderland” and its ilk again as long as I live, it will be too soon).


[1]  As I’ve rambled about before when writing about this play, it is often mispunctuated as Second Shepherd’s Play, but the manuscript reads Secunda Pastorum; the genitive here is a clear sign that it is a play of shepherds, plural, hence Second Shepherds’ Play.

[2] This quotation is from the modernized Everyman Text at

[3] It’s also Child ballad #54, of which there are several versions given in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, an e-text version of which is here.


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