The carol is a story about Joseph and Mary walking into an orchard, an orchard rich with deep-red cherries and berries. Mary, hungry and presumably moving a little slower than was her wont on account of her expectant condition, asks Joseph to pick her a single cherry. Joseph gets a little snarky, responding that whoever it was that got her with child can go get her a cherry; he'll have none of it. Then, depending on which version of the carol you're listening to, either an angel comes down and moves the cherry branch so that Mary can reach it, or the branch moves seemingly of its own accord when the unborn Infant commands it. Joseph, seeing divine intervention, is immediately ashamed of his unkind words, cheers Mary up, and they go home together.
My sister and I heartily disagree on the worth of this story. Clearly, it is not biblical; rather, it lies in the realm of tradition and legend or perhaps even just plain make-believe. She sees it as disrespectful and an unfair representation. As we don't have any record of St. Joseph being unkind or downright cranky, it seems rather presumptuous to put such words in his mouth. True enough. But let's think about his situation. Unlike Mary, he was not preserved from Original Sin. He knew temptation and knew what it meant to fall to it. He was human; he sinned. Now, let's talk about family dynamics. Guess who's fault it was if something went wrong in that household? Every single time. Poor Joseph. You just can't win when you're living with two entirely absolutely perfect people. Don't get me wrong. Of course part of me would love to live with people who were one hundred percent kind and perfect and humble and beautiful and loving and gentle and sweet and good all the time. But sheesh, I'm certainly not all those things, and I'm sure I couldn't help but get at least a little discouraged at my imperfections constantly seen in sharp contrast to their perfection. Yes, he was a saint. But saints are not born -- they get there through grace and hard work. He was human, and I'm sure he lost his temper at least once. To say that he didn't seems a little piously unrealistic.
Tying all this back into The Cherry Tree Carol, let's think about how the human man Joseph was living in close quarters, as a husband, to the most beautiful woman the world has ever seen. Helen of Troy is small potatoes, people. Not only does he have to stave off all the certain temptations regarding this exquisite creature that surely must have come over him from time to time, but he has to be all right with the fact that she is having someone else's baby, not his. It's easy enough for us to say, hey, it's the Incarnation. Lucky guy! Right? Yeah, not really. We still don't really understand it. Intellectually we might accept it, but that doesn't mean we really get it. Even with Revelation and all the studies and writings of theologians over the last two thousand years, we mere earthly humans are really never going to be able to understand it all the way. It's too big for us. So think of Joseph the handyman from nowhere-ville, without revelation and theologians behind him, trying to understand how his betrothed is pregnant all of a sudden. It's only natural that he'd assume what all the rest of us would in such a situation. Yes, he is kind about it, but don't you think he is a little miffed at least once?
The saints don't help us to be better people unless we remember that before they were canonized and living in the full glory of the beatific vision, they were imperfect, sometimes childish, occasionally deeply flawed ordinary Joe Schmoes like the rest of us. St. Lord-Make-Me-Chaste-But-Not-Yet Augustine, is of course one of my favorites. St. Therese of Lisieux was a spoiled rotten selfish little girl, by the way. St. Joseph was, I am sure, given oodles of grace to handle all the remarkably intense challenges he had to face, but it's far more down to earth, humanizing and realistic to think about the times he might have lost his temper than it is to pedestalize him as an eternally patient super-human demi-god. Sing on, little choir boys!
If you want to read a nice full length version of the story, complete with the verses often omitted when it's sung, Bartleby has a nice version here.