In the movie Edward Scissorhands, Alan Arkin sings I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In while stapling artificial snow to the roof of his home. Just like that movie, the lyrics to that Christmas carol are really confusing. In a nutshell, they indicate that three ships with Jesus and Mary as their passengers sail into Bethlehem (which is surrounded by land) on Christmas Day (on Christmas Day).
The story behind I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In seems far-fetched and somewhat morbid, but it proves that truth is often stranger than fiction.
In 313 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. His mother, Helena, a well known believer in Christ, taught her son what she knew about the faith. Constantine sent Helena to the Holy Land to find proof of his new religion and to bring back as many symbols and relics as she could acquire. With the help of merchants, private citizens, and a few scam artists, Helena returned with several souvenirs: notably the cross of Jesus and the bones and skulls of the three wisemen. Constantine was so thrilled with the remains of the wise men, he promptly placed them in a fancy golden coffin and then donated them to the Bishop of Milan. 800 years later, the bones of the Magi were taken (some say stolen) by order of the pope and enshrined in a cathedral in Cologne, Germany. To this day, the shrine of the Magi still lie in the Cologne, Germany cathedral.
The 12th century boatmen who delivered the caskets to Cologne, Germany sang as they worked. As they traveled, the song morphed into a song about the skeletons of the wise men they were delivering to Germany.
Kind of weird and morbid, huh?
By the 16th century, the song had made its way to England and Scotland. The folk singers, bards, and minstrels changed the lyrics to be about the Holy Family arriving in Bethlehem, not by donkey, but by sailing ship. The folks of rural England and Scotland had no idea of biblical geography so no one seemed to mind that it’s technically impossible for ships to sail into Bethlehem. Some versions of the songs simply have the holy family waving while sailing by on Christmas Day. Some have Joseph steering the ship while others fail to mention him at all.
So, out of a questionable conversion, early religious artifact scam artists, royal naivete, papal “thievery”, and a morbid sea shanty came a light hearted fun Christmas song used for singing and dancing, which, in the end, I suppose, is fine, especially on Christmas Day (on Christmas Day).
Click here for a fun version of I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In by Blackmore’s Night
*Professional photo at top courtesy of Jamie Morrison. Secondary photo is an actual photo of the Shrine of the Magi and is used courtesy of the Cologne Chapel in Koln, Germany.