Illustration by Claudia McGehee

Illustration by Claudia McGehee

This week for me is going to revolve around music. I’m playing the organ at our late Christmas Eve service and the piano for a wedding on Friday and then, of course, for the regular service the following Sunday. When I realized I had nothing to write about today and have posted photos the past two days, I started thinking about Christmas Carols.

A couple of weeks ago I played a pretty version of “I Saw Three Ships” as a prelude. I really liked it; it’s such a happy, lilting tune. A common version of the lyrics goes like this.

I saw three ship come sailing in,
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
I saw three ship 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.

And where they sailed those ships all three?
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
And where they sailed those ships all three?
on Christmas Day in the morning.

All they sailed in to Bethlehem,
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
All they sailed in to 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.

And let us all rejoice again,
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
And let us all rejoice again,
on Christmas Day in the morning.

It doesn’t really make much sense, considering the nearest body of water to Bethlehem is the Dead Sea about 20 miles away. A traditional interpretation is that the Three Ships originally represented the Three Wise Men, and the song has changed over the years.

It’s a traditional English Christmas carol that may date back to the 15th Century. Another version of the lyrics includes this stanza:

I axed ’em what they’d got on board
They said they’d got three crawns
I axed ’em where they was taken to
They said they was ganging to Coln upon Rhine
I axed ’em where they came frae
They said they came frae Bethlehem

Some source state the origin of the three ships can be traced back to the 12th century when three ships brought the relics, including the skulls (crawns), of the purported Magi to Koln, Germany (Coln upon Rhine).  Some historians say the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, carried the relics to Constantinople in the 4th century. They were then taken to  Milan by St. Eustathius in 344. The relics were taken from Milan by Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa and given to the Archbishop of Cologne, Rainald of Dassel in 1164. A shrine to hold the relics was finished circa 1225. It is a large gilded and decorated triple casket.

Shrine

Construction of the present Cologne Cathedral began in 1248 to house this important shrine containing the relics. The cathedral took 632 years to complete.

Cathedral

On July 20, 1864, the shrine was opened, and the remains and 2000-year-old clothes of the Three Kings were examined. According to Wikipedia, an eyewitness report of the time reads:

“In a special compartment of the shrine now there showed—along with remains of ancient old rotten or moulded bandages, most likely byssus (a fine-textured linen of ancient times, used by the Egyptians for wrapping mummies), besides pieces of aromatic resins and similar substance—numerous bones of three persons, which under the guidance of several present experts could be assembled into nearly complete bodies: the one in his early youth, the second in his early manhood, the third was rather aged…”

Part history, part folklore, part Christmas story – interesting, huh?

What are some of your favorite Christmas carols?