Legend, song, and custom link the cherry tree to the CHRISTMAS SEASON. In all three the cherry tree performs unusual feats in response to the power of God or the magic of the season.
An old Christian legend, first recorded in the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, makes the cherry tree the subject of one of the infant JESUS’first miracles. The original Latin text containing the tale dates back to the eighth or ninth century. This version of the story tells of an event that occurred shortly after Jesus’birth. JOSEPH, MARY, and the infant Jesus were traveling in the desert. The couple spied a palm tree and went to rest under its shadow. Joseph worried about how they were going to find water. Mary expressed a wish for the dates she saw hanging high above them. Joseph scolded his wife for asking for something so far out of his reach. Then the baby Jesus spoke to the tree, ordering it to bend down so his mother could gather the fruit. The tree obeyed. Jesus also commanded an underground spring to surface so they could drink and fill their water bags.
As the tale passed from one teller to another, many variations oc-curred. In later versions of the story the incident takes place before Jesus is born. Moreover, as the tale became popular in EUROPE, the tree which Jesus commands to bow down changes to species more familiar to Europeans. In Britain, the newer versions of the story featured a cherry tree. In these later interpretations of the tale, Joseph and his pregnant wife are walking by some cherry trees laden with ripe fruit. Mary asks Joseph to pick some cherries for her. He refuses in a rude manner, with the implication that he still questions the origins of her mysterious pregnancy. Jesus, from inside the womb, then commands the cherry tree to bow down so his mother can pick fruit. Joseph stands by sheepishly and observes this miracle. The earliest recorded version of this story in the English language appeared in a fifteenth-century miracle play. Eventually this popular tale was set to music in the Christmas song known as “The Cherry Tree Carol” (see also CHRISTMAS CAROL).
In medieval Europe a miracle play concerning the expulsion of ADAM AND EVE from the Garden of Eden was often performed around Christmas time. The play featured one central prop, the PARADISE TREE. Apples hung from its branches as a symbol of Eve’s act of disobedience, but some also added cherries as a symbol of Mary.
According to an old custom, Germans, Czechs, Austrians, Poles, and other central and eastern Europeans begin Barbara branches on December 4, ST. BARBARA’S DAY. A branch is broken off a cherry tree and kept in a pot of water near the stove. This premature warmth encourages the branch to blossom. Old folklore suggests that if the buds blossom on Christmas Eve, the girl who tended the branch will find a good husband within the year. Others interpret the Christmas flowers as signs that good fortune will visit the household in the coming year. This old custom has regained some popularity among Western Christians. Instead of cherry branches, some people use apple, plum, almond, forsythia, jasmine, or horse chestnut branches.