Christian History Home > Blog > 2008 > December > Top Eight Historically Incorrect Christmas Songs
Top Eight Historically Incorrect Christmas Songs
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How to be a loudmouth know-it-all at your carol sing.
I love Christmas music. Not as much as the blogosphere's Ernie (Not Bert), Andy Cirzan, or some of the Christmas music nuts I've met. But still, 10,000 Christmas songs on my hard drive probably qualifies me as a fanatic.
There are ample songs that grate (if you think the Chipmunks are bad, try the Chippers, Woody the Chipmunk, or any of the Chipmunk ripoff albums that came after "Christmas Don't Be Late" hit it big in 1958). But there are other songs that are just plain wrong - and many of them are among the most popular of the season. Here, for your interrupting pleasure during your family singing, your Christmas Eve neighborhood caroling, or similar opportunities, are the best songs to cluck at.
8. I Saw Three Ships
An easy one just to start the list. Bethlehem is landlocked, so it is historically improbable that our savior Christ and his lady came sailing in on Christmas day in the morning. But that's not all that's problematic about the song. Where's Joseph? If it's just Jesus and Mary, why do they need three ships? Surely Mary didn't just arrive in Bethlehem the morning of the birth?
The history of the song is unclear, but several of the more reputable books on Christmas carol history suggest that its origins may have had something to do with a story of three ships carrying relics of the Magi to Cologne, Germany, in 1162.
The song as it is sung today first appeared in William B. Sandys's wonderful 1833 volume, Christmastide: Its History, Festivities And Carols. No surprise there: Christmastide also marked the first publication of God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen, The First Nowell, and other great carols. Sandys was interested in "the curious fancy" of three ships bearing the Madonna and Child, and noted that the carol is only one of several to take a maritime theme. He quotes an "ancient Dutch Carol" that began:
There comes a vessel laden,
And on its highest gunwale,
Mary holds the rudder,
The angel steers it on. ?
In one unbroken course
There comes that ship to land,
It brings to us rich gifts,
Forgiveness is sent to us.
Sandys quotes from Joseph Ritson's earlier collection of songs, which offered a similar Scottish song:
There comes a ship far sailing then,
Saint Michael was the stieres-man;
Saint John sate in the horn:
Our Lord harped, our Lady sang,
And all the bells of heaven they rang,
On Christ's sonday at morn,
An interesting history. But still: No ships in Bethlehem. Which led John Camden Hotten to note in his 1905 Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern that the carol "has always been a great favorite with the illiterate, and from its quaintness will be found not displeasing to the more refined."
7. The First Nowell
As long as we're in Sandys's volume, we might as well turn to his section on The First Nowell. Today we sing that the Noel was sung "to certain poor shepherds." Sandys's version had "three poor shepherds." In a note, Sandys explains:
According to some legends, the number [of shepherds] was four, called Misael, Achael, Cyriacus, and Stephanus, and these, with the names of the three Kings, were used as a charm to cure the biting of serpents, and other venomous reptiles and beasts. In the seventh of the Chester Mysteries, the Shepherds, who there are but three, have the more homely names of Harvey, Tudd, and Trowle, and are Cheshire or Lancashire boors by birth and habits. Trowle's gift to our Saviour is "a pair of his wife's old hose."
Fortunately, we don't have any popular carols about Trowle's hose. Joshua Sylvestre, in his Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (published a few decades after Sandy's volume), complains about "two additional, but very foolish verses" in the song that seem unbiblical:
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