Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I Saw Three Ships

"I Saw Three Ships" has always slightly baffled me. What does the Christmas story have to do with ships? Why three? What were the Virgin Mary and Christ doing on a ship? The farthest the Bible tells about them going was when Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt (probably via donkey or camel) to escape King Herod's murderous rage.

The singer claims to have seen three ships bearing the Virgin Mary and Christ come sailing into Bethlehem on Christmas morning (which is interesting, since, as Wikipedia points out, Bethlehem is about 20 miles from the Dead Sea, the nearest body of water). The singer goes on to tell how all the angels and "all the souls on earth" will sing. It then recommends that we all rejoice amain (which, according to Dictionary.com, means "with great strength, speed, or haste"...so in other words, we should rejoice at the top of our lungs).

I'm all for rejoicing at the arrival of the Savior, and it is definitely worth the angels and everyone on earth celebrating. But that still leaves us with the question... Ships?!

Apparently, the song is from the 17th Century, likely written in Derbyshire, England in 1666. According to The Hymns and Carols of Christmas, legend says that in the 12th Century, three ships carried the gold, frankincense and myrrh given by the Wise Men (one gift on each ship, I guess) to Koln, Germany. As the years went by, the legend replaced the Magi with the Holy Family (other versions of the song also mention Joseph).

That makes a bit more sense. I still think it's weird, though.

UPDATE: According to my friend Wendy Marcinkiewicz, camels were known as "the ship of the desert." That could be another explanation, which would make sense.

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