“The holly bears a berry as red as any blood…” There are many berries we associate with Christmas time. I still need to get around to making this year’s frozen haws (hawthorn berries) into some kind of jam or syrup. (Blame the post-vaccine fatigue!)
I’d like to share with you three traditional Christmas tales about berries and cherries.
The Miracle of Marjatta
I retell this episode from the Finnish national epic The Kalevala in my book Asexual Myths & Tales. It’s a version of the Nativity story, told through the lens of Finland’s pagan past.
The maiden Marjatta (Mary) becomes miraculously pregnant by eating a cowberry that cries out to her, “Pick me!” When the pregnancy starts to show, one believes her tale, and she is forced to search around for a sauna in which to give birth. She asks Herod (here, the village headman) for use of his sauna, but he refuses. So she goes into a stable, where the cattle create a sauna with their warm breath. Her son becomes the one who ousts the shaman Väinämöinen from his position of prominence.
To read the story in full, buy the book here.
The Cherry Tree Carol
In this traditional Christmas carol /ballad, a pregnant Mary asks Joseph to pick her some cherries from a tree. Joseph angrily replies that whoever got her with child can pick the cherries. At this, the unborn Christ-child commands the tree to bend down to his mother so she can pick the cherries, at which Joseph repents his folly.
There are many versions of this very old song, which takes its inspiration from an incident in the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. (Only in that version, the tree is a date palm).
A medieval English romance, this tale tells of a knight (Sir Cleges) who holds a lavish Christmas feast each year for rich and poor alike. But then he becomes poor himself, and prays on Christmas Day for help. In response, God makes a cherry tree bear unseasonal fruit. He and his wife decide to take the cherries to the king as a gift. The steward doesn’t want to let him in, and makes Sir Cleges grant to him a third part of whatever reward the king offers. Sir Cleges asks for 12 strokes with the staff, of which he pays the steward four, just as he promised! The king finds this a good joke, and makes Sir Cleges steward instead.
So, there you are! Three cherry-berry tales for Christmas. Now, where are my jam jars..?