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I Saw Three Ships - Lryics, History, and Great Performances

Updated on December 16, 2012

I Saw Three Ships: A Christmas Carol

I Saw Three Ships is a Christmas Carol that dates back to the 1600s in England. It is often considered a child's song due to its repetition. I Saw Three Ships is a joyous song celebrating Christ's arrival, but the lyrics often leave people scratching their heads.

Where are there ships in the Christmas story?

Wasn't Bethlehem landlocked?

I Saw Three Ships

"Christmas Carols, An­cient and Mo­dern", by William Sandys, 1833:

Lyrics to I Saw Three Ships

As was published in 1833 in Christmas Carols, An­cient and Mo­dern

By William Sandys

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 Savior Christ and His lady,

On Christmas day, on Christmas day;

Our Savior 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?

O they sailed into Bethlehem,

On Christmas day, on Christmas day,

O 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 Heav'n shall sing,

On Christmas day, on Christmas day;

And all the angels in Heav'n 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 rejoice amain,

On Christmas day in the morning.

Sting - I Saw Three Ships

Ships Sailing Into Bethlehem?

How could that be?

How could a song about something as absurd as three ships sailing into Bethlehem even come about, let alone become a popular Christmas Carol hundreds of years later? I think many have asked themselves this very question.

I Saw Three Ships originates in England somewhere in the 1600's. England, at that time, was absolutely fascinated with the sea. Sailors who had been around the world returned to England with their marvelous tales. England was stretching its arms to the Americas, Africa, India, and beyond.

The song expresses happiness and excitement about the coming of the Christ child, much like the excitement of a ship coming in to port. It is this happiness and joy that makes the song so popular.

I Saw Three Ships - by Elizabeth Goudge (Author), Margot Tomes (Illustrator)

I Saw Three Ships
I Saw Three Ships

Little Polly Flowerdew lives with her two maiden aunts, and she is absolutely sure that something special is going to happen this Christmas. She leaves her bedroom window open on Christmas Eve, just in case the three wise men decide to come visit. When she wakes up on Christmas morning, more than one miracle seems to have taken place.

A moving, lyrical, and endearing chapter book, celebrating the magic as well as the mystery of Christmas, this is Godine's first title by Elizabeth Goudge, mistress of the art of storytelling, and it's charmingly illustrated with ink drawings by Margot Tomes. It is a perfect Christmas read-aloud for young children and their parents.

 

Download an MP3 of I Saw Three Ships

Click the album cover to listen to a preview.

Similiar Scotish Hymn

Ritson, in his "Introduction to Scotch songs," vol. I, gives the following lines as sung during the Christmas holidays about the middle of the sixteenth century, which bear a similarity to this carol:

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.

I Saw Three Ships Videos

Camels
Camels

Camels?

Did you know that camels are referred to as "ships of the desert"? They were the main means of carrying freight, and by such held as much importance as ships did for trade in other geographical regions.

So, is it possible that the three ships sailing in were three camels? Since we don't really know the origins of this song, I suppose anything is possible.

What Do You Think?

Historians love to debate the symbolism found within the words of the Christmas hymn, "I Saw Three Ships." Do the seafaring vessels represent Columbus's voyage? Or are they indirect references to: the Holy Trinity, the three Wise Men, or I Corinthians 13:13 (King James Version, "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity")?

What do you think the three ships represent?

See results

King's College Choir, Cambridge

Passing through the secular community, even going back to the Victorian era was this similar nursery rhyme:

I saw three ships come sailing by

Come sailing by, come sailing by;

I saw three ships come sailing by

On New Year's Day in the morning.

And what do you think was in them then?

Was in them then, was in them then?

And what do you think was in them then,

On New Year's Day in the morning?

Three pretty girls we in them then,

Were in them then, were in them then;

Three pretty girls we in them then,

On New Year's Day in the morning.

And one could whistle, and one could sing

And one could play on the violin -

Such joy there was at my wedding,

On New Year's Day in the morning.

(The Nursery Rhyme Book, 1897)

The Bells

In the 1600s, when there was important news, the bells were rung to notify the community to gather. Even though this song doesn't delve much into the Christmas story, it does say a few things. It says that Jesus came, that it was important - enough to ring all the bells on earth, and it says that this is something to be happy about - "And all the angels in Heav'n shall sing", "and all the souls on Earth shall sing".

And all the bells on Earth shall ring!

Download an MP3 of I Saw Three Ships

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    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I was always fascinated by I Saw Three Ships, it just always made me imagine when I was little...blessed!

    • Michey LM profile image

      Michey LM 6 years ago

      Beautiful Christmas Carol. I enjoy your lens.

      Send Star dust Blessing your lens.

      Have a great New Year

    • BrickHouseFabrics profile image

      BrickHouseFabrics 6 years ago

      Your lenses are bringing Christmas home for me!

    • Lisa-Marie-Mary profile image

      Lisa-Marie-Mary 6 years ago

      What an interesting lens! Thank you! I love to learn origins of things like this that are so old and also debated as to the exact details. Very cool!

    • GonnaFly profile image

      Jeanette 7 years ago from Australia

      I've often wondered what those three ships were... I love the verse about the angels singing because they knew something glorious was happening.

    • joanhall profile image

      Joan Hall 7 years ago from Los Angeles

      Beautiful lens! I had never heard the verse that said "they sailed into Bethlehem", so I had always thought people were imagining Jesus sailing OUT to them to bring them the message of salvation.

    • blue22d profile image

      blue22d 7 years ago

      I have not heard this song in years. Thanks for your lens. *****

    • profile image

      soha89 8 years ago

      nice job :)

      plz check my lens and feed a child or plant a tree

      http://www.squidoo.com/bluespace

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 8 years ago from Southampton, UK

      This was one of my favorite Christmas Carols when I was younger, and you did a fantastic job of putting this lens together. 5*****

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 8 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      I could spend all morning going from one of your Christmas Carol lenses to the other. This is great. I really enjoyed. Thank you.

    • fefe42 profile image

      fefe42 8 years ago

      Thanks for joining my new Christmas music group! Watch for your lens to be featured on it.

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      I wish I could give you more than 5 stars. I've truly enjoyed all of your Christmas Carols lenses. You have done a fantastic job on all of them. Wow! And I loved the videos, too. You did a great job on the Sting video. I had completely forgot about this song. Thanks for such a wonderful reminder!

    • CherylK profile image

      Cheryl Kohan 8 years ago from Minnesota

      You've done a beautiful job on this lens! Lots of interesting information presented in a nice format. I think it deserves five stars!