I Saw Three Ships: Dead Kings, a Really Bad Sense of Geography, and More English

Traditional — 1833 (kinda)

In the realm of old school English folk tunes, “I Saw Three Ships” is a textbook case. Quick stanzas, simple chord progression, and lyrics so repetitive you’ll be begging to walk the plank or die in a scurvy-charged mutiny. The thing is this one starts to get a little more interesting the more you think about it. Putting aside the fact that hymns and religious music aren’t to be taken literally, the imagery in this song is confusing, to say the least. Let’s look at the second and third verses, for example:

And what was in those ships all three,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day?
And what was in those ships all three,
On Christmas Day in the morning?

The Virgin Mary and Christ were there,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
The Virgin Mary and Christ were there,
On Christmas Day in the morning.

Putting aside the lack of reference to sailing in the story of the nativity, it’s stated that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a village just south of Jerusalem. The closest body of water is the Dead Sea, which is around 30km east, and Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, were from Nazareth, which is over 100km north. After his birth, the family fled to Egypt to avoid the wrath of King Herod, who was on a baby killing thing at the time. Though it doesn’t specify exactly where in Egypt they would have gone, the trip would largely consist of land travel, as it would have been expensive, inefficient, and just straight up conspicuous to take three ships for three people.

Decoding this one would be significant easier if there was a clearly documented point of origin, but unfortunately we aren’t that lucky. It was published in Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern in 1833 under the title “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In,” transcribed by English lawyer William Sandys. There is also printed version from the 17th century too (one source says 1666, but doesn’t give any citation), but because of its structure and chord progression, it’s actually likely far older than that. Odds are “I Saw Three Ships” was written by minstrels in the middle ages, and over time it has changed and morphed little by little into what we have now. This would probably explain the poor sense of Israeli geography.

So what could the date explain about the lyrics? It would probably help narrow down what ships we’re talking about, because without a clear date, people are guessing whatever they want. Some say we can tie this one to Wenceslaus II Přemyslid, King of Bohemia (not the Good King, a different Wenceslaus), who reigned modern-day western Czech Republic in the late 13th century. Why him? Wenceslaus II had a coat of arms with three boats. That’s pretty much it.

Some think it’s a little more symbolic, referring to the fact that camels are sometimes referred to as “ships in the desert.” This would imply a connection to the three wise men, or Magi, who brought gifts to Jesus shortly after his birth. Though a bit dull, this one seems decently logical, but I do question how many traveling English minstrels would have been writing lyrics using boats to represent camels wandering through Israel.

The Magi, however, are involved in my personal favorite interpretation of the song. Some believe the three titular ships are actually the three boats that brought the supposed remains of the Magi to Cologne Cathedral in Germany in the 12th century.

When construction started on the church, the builders had planned for the cathedral to house a glorious reliquary for the kings, and though it wasn’t completed for generations, it does currently house the Shrine of the Three Kings. The cathedral also isn’t remotely close to Israel, but the church is positioned near a river, so there’s at least slightly more credence to this theory than the 30km nautical voyage directly over land in Bethlehem. It’s also metal as hell.

For one of the oldest songs I’ve researched for these articles, “I Saw Three Ships” is also probably the least cherished. Maybe it’s the vague origins, maybe it’s because it’s so repetitive (though “Jingle Bells” pulls in pretty close), or maybe it’s just the lack of a super definitive version. Though Sting’s 1997 version does get some circulation, it isn’t an iconic performance in the way Mahalia Jackson’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” or Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” are. It’s also just a really basic song, so basic it was adapted into a weird nursery rhyme in the 19th century called “I Saw Three Ships on New Years Day,” including cutting-edge lyrics like “Three pretty girls were in them then, Were in them then, were in them then. Three pretty girls were in them then, On New Year’s Day in the morning.”

If “I Saw Three Ships” is one of your favorites, please let me know why in the comments. I would genuinely love to know. It deserves a highlight for its historical value, even if it can’t stack up against flashier entries in the Christmas songbook.

Toronto-based journalist and creative writer with an interest in music, art, people, and small business. Twitter and Instagram @PeteSanf