The Common Good

What Are You Singing: I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In

One carol I’ve been humming this Advent is “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In.” It’s not one I grew up singing, but I love it. The most popular contemporary lyrics talk about “three ships come sailing in” to Bethlehem on Christmas morning. Bruce Cockburn says the weird lyrics are the result of English folk in the 18th century hallucinating from eating too much ergot in their moldy English bread. Certainly there were no ships sailing into landlocked Bethlehem.

Three ships on a calm sea, © Nadezhda Bolotina / Shutterstock.com
Three ships on a calm sea, © Nadezhda Bolotina / Shutterstock.com

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I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
Saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning.

Pray, wither sailed those ships all three,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
Wither sailed those ships all three,
On Christmas Day in the morning.

O they sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
They sailed into Bethlehem,
On Christmas Day in the morning.

But there is a much older tradition around this song that hints at an early Christian suppressed narrative. The lyrics were first collected and associated with Cornwall and Glastonbury in England, the seat of ancient Celtic and pre-Celtic indigenous communities in Western Britain. A  vicar in Glastonbury told songcatcher Rev. H.A. Lewis that “Our Lord is said to have walked along the Pilgrims' Way to Winchester, which was very likely the old tin trade route.”

In Cornwall, folk wisdom recalls when “Christ came to Cornwall.” In the rich tin mine country of Cornwall, they have a tradition among the metal workers (or “tin men”) “that St Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man of the Gospels, made his money in the tin trade between Phoenicia and Cornwall. We have also a story that he made several voyages to Britain in his own ships, and that on one occasion he brought with him the Child Christ and his Mother as passengers, and landed them; at St Michael's Mount in Cornwall."  One old woman from the area when interviewed by songcatchers in the 19th century said, “Joseph, was a tin man. Of course, we know Our Saviour preached to the miners. He was very fond of the miners.”

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 who do you think was in them then?
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
And who do you think was in them then
But Joseph and Our Lady.

He did whistle and she did sing
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
He did whistle and she did sing 
On Christmas day in the morning

Another oral tradition says that when the real Roman oppression fell on the Holy Land, Joseph of Arimathea and the three Marys (Jesus’ mother, the Magdalene, and the sister of Martha) sailed off to the south of France with the chalice that caught the blood of Christ as he hung from the cross (the Holy Grail) and traveled from there throughout Europe evangelizing. In this tradition the three ships in question are the three Marys, bearing gospel riches in their “holds.”

The final verses are pure celebration:

And all the bells on earth did ring
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
And all the bells on earth did ring
On Christmas day in the morning

And all the angels in heaven did sing
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
And all the angels in heaven did sing
On Christmas day in the morning

This Christmas I hope those “three ships” will sail toward the light of my Advent candles. And that I’m ready to receive the treasures they bear.

Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor for Sojourners magazine.

Photo: Three ships on a calm sea, © Nadezhda Bolotina | View Portfolio / Shutterstock.com

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