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I Saw Three Ships


I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Christmas day in the morning.


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.


Our Saviour Christ and his lady
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Our Saviour Christ and his lady,
On Christmas day in the morning.



Pray whither sailed those ships all three?
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Pray whither sailed those ships all three?
On Christmas day in the morning.


Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas day in the morning.


And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas day in the morning.


And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,
On Christmas day in the morning.


And all the souls on earth shall sing,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the souls on earth shall sing,
On Christmas day in the morning.


Then let us all rejoice, amain,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Then let us all rejoice, amain,
On Christmas day in the morning.








Words: Traditional; appeared in Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern,
by William Sandys (London: Richard Beckley, 1833).
First Publication Date: John Forbes' Cantus, 2nd. ed. (1666)


This carol first appeared in appeared in William Sandys' 1833 Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern. Its problematic text (you can't, sail to Bethlehem) would seem to have its origins in the conflation of two medieval traditions. The first is that of increasingly elaborate stories about how, centuries after their death, the remains of the three wise men who visited the infant Jesus, were taken by boat from the Holy land to Constantinople, then to Milan and finally Cologne. The second is the 14th century German tradition of 'ship carols' in which Jesus' coming is compared in a mystical way to the arrival of a ship (indeed similar imagery has been found in mid-16th possibly Scottish carol) and the number three was an echo of the Trinity. Less can be said about the tune. A rhythmic similarity has been noted between the text and the song 'There lived a man in Babylon' sung by Sir Toby Belch in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. The modern day tune is based on that Sandysí published in 1833 and the famous folk collector Cecil Sharp noted that it is not only also the tune of several 20th century secular folk songs - but also of an 18th century song 'As I sat on a sunny bank'.
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