Apocryphal Carols

The word ‘apocrypha’  means “things put away” or “things hidden” and comes from the Greek through the Latin. The general term is usually applied to the books that were considered by the church as useful, but not divinely inspired. In general, the earliest books about Jesus were the ones included in the bible – later amplifications and variant traditions are now termed apochryphal.

The rarity of information about the childhood of Jesus in the canonical Gospels led to a hunger of early Christians for more detail about the early life of Jesus. This was supplied by a number of second century and later texts, known as infancy gospels, none of which were accepted into the biblical canon but the very number of their surviving manuscripts attests to their continued popularity. Most of these were based on the earliest infancy gospels, namely the Infancy Gospel of Saint James (also called the “Protoevangelium of James”) and infancy Gospel of Thomas, and on their later combination into the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (also called the “Infancy Gospel of Matthew” or “Birth of Mary and Infancy of the Saviour”).

The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew had a strong influence on mediaeval thought, partly due to its inclusion in the Golden Legend, a hugely-popular book which sought to compile traditional lore about all of the saints venerated at the time of its compilation. The Cherry Tree Carol and The Bitter Withy both derive from events described in this book.

Note by Carol Davies November 2011