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Jesus in the trees 1: English folk carols

Even though I’ve got the name of the great defender of Britain, I’m not English, or British. I once heard that I have some Scottish ancestry. My parents used to play Enya and ‘A Celtic Heartbeat Christmas’, so does that make me Irish?

Anyway, I’m still drawn to the songs of the ‘old country’, even if it’s not my old country, not for several generations now.

I’ve been listening to Kerfuffle’s Lighten the Dark (also on iTunes), and two songs piqued my interest, ‘the Holly and the Ivy’ and ‘the Cherry Tree Carol’.

Both of these English folk carols are fascinating examples of cultural translation and gospel transmission, placing Christ in the English landscape.


The Holly and the Ivy riffs on ancient European forest customs by claiming the holly bush as a sign of Christ. The English countryside is said to point to Christ, and Christ becomes part of that countryside. (In my imagination this is also a case of Christ as the Green Man.)

Meanwhile, the Cherry Tree carol takes an apocryphal nativity story from an Egyptian setting and transplants it into the English countryside – leaving Mary and Joseph journeying through green orchards! Were there cherry trees in Palestine and Egypt? That’s beside the point.

Another woodland carol is Down in Yon Forest, based on an earlier song which goes full King Arthur with a maid weeping for a bleeding knight at the tomb of Jesus. (Yeah, this one’s pretty gothic.)

And minus the forest but in a similar magical vein is I Saw Three Ships, in which medieval galleons (?) sail into landlocked Bethlehem.

This is not about geographical accuracy (there is a historical reality after all), but about retelling the Jesus story in English terms – not just in the English language, but in the English thought-world, ultimately taking place within England itself.

It’s the same sort of thing as Black Jesus and other artistic appropriations. The story becomes all the more true and vivid because it takes place on the inside of the world of the people.

In these ways Jesus becomes not just comprehensible to the people of England, but a natural part of their physical surrounds. As an ordinary English person singing these carols once upon a time, I imagine you couldn’t go about your life without your thoughts, in some way, at some time, turning to Christ.

It’s a remarkable example of what I would consider creative, intentional contextualisation, planting Christ within the English imagination so as to make Christ English.

More on that next week…

Image credit: Annie Spratt

Categories: Uncategorized Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

2 replies

  1. Looking forward to your reflections on Christmas where you are. And I’m really noticing this year the traditional ‘Christmas colours’ of the Australian bush, where the new red growth sits vividly on the older green – why has no one written carols on that theme of colour and new life?

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