Lyric Analysis: I Saw Three Ships

Full disclosure: I listened to Tchiakovsky’s Nutcracker Suite while writing this. It did not negatively impact my ability to analyze things, in fact I’d say it offered enlightenment by way of keeping me sane.  I don’t know if you’re overly familiar with this carol but it’s not one of the better offerings of the season.  

Lyric Analysis: I Saw Three Ships

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

I am, of course, picturing a wind-swept coastal town with little houses on a hillside all decked out in lights and wreaths.  Totally Norman Rockwell.  A dog in a yard.  A lamppost.  And a man in a red bathrobe cupping a coffee mug as he gazes out his window at three ships sailing into the small harbour Christmas morning.  I can SEE it, you know?  It’s so beautiful.

And what was in those ships all three
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day

Let’s address the repetition before we go any farther.  The Jacob Two-Two style of saying everything twice is actually an example of epimone repetition, albeit a vaguely bastardized one.  Epimone repetition sees an entire phrase repeated for emphasis.  In this song, however, only the first phrase of each stanza is repeated verbatim: the second phrase is repeated with a change at the end which is a type of anaphora repetition.  The more you know...

And what was in those ships all three
On Christmas Day in the morning

The question on everyone’s mind!  I’ve listened ahead so... SPOILER: none of them are ships full of corpses with the dead captain strapped to the wheel and a box of dirt containing Dracula.  They’re not the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria either.

Our saviour, Christ and his lady

Wait, WHAT?
First of all, Christ sailed?  Into...?  For...?  And who on earth is his lady?  What lady?  *head spins*

On Christmas Day, On Christmas Day
Our saviour, Christ and his lady
On Christmas Day in the morning

This is the version Sting sang on the popular 1997 album A Very Special Christmas 3.  I found these particular lyrics on another site as well.  But on two other sites I found rather different lyrics for this stanza and on yet another site they just straight-up skipped this stanza altogether.  I trust Sting though I have absolutely no basis for that trust so I’d like to believe these are the truly true traditional lyrics.  But the thought of Christ sailing with with an unknown lady is too much for some versions to handle so the alternate take is this:

[alternate]
The Virgin Mary and Christ were there,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;
The Virgin Mary and Christ were there,
On Christmas Day in the morning.

Which, while worded less scandalously, still does nothing to alleviate confusion over why Mary and Jesus were part of a flotilla Christmas morning and without Joseph.  Perhaps the rest of the song will shed some much-needed light on the situation.

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

This song needs an editor.  Or Prince Humperdinck.  “Skip to the end.”

Oh, they sail into Bethlehem
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
Oh, they sail into Bethlehem
On Christmas Day in the morning

I don’t know what to tell you.  Bethlehem is not a port city.  The nearest body of water to Bethlehem would be the Dead Sea which is approximately 200ish km away.  Were they ghost ships?  How were three ships sailing into a non-port city bearing the Virgin Mary and Christ Child who were by all accounts (Matthew’s, Luke’s, a bunch of shepherds, three magi) resting comfortably at Motel 6 Stableside during the time in question?  And why three ships?   

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

That is truly a cacophony of bells.  Were Hitchcock to have gotten ahold of this song instead of a bird, we’d have had an ominous and inexplicable rash of bells tormenting Tippi Hedren all at once for one unendurable day.  The Bells, it would have been called.  It would have been a Christmas game-changer.

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

The repetition is taxing, no?  Pressing onward: there are various theories as to what the three ships actually represent.  One theory (mine) is that the song is literal and the song-writer doesn’t give a fig about geography but he sure does like sailing.  I’ve analyzed enough boyband offerings by now to know that songs do not need to pass the Vulcan Test of Logic to succeed.  Another theory is that the ships are actually in reference to ones that brought the relics of the magi to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century.  Another theory suggests that it relates to Wenceslaus II, King of Bohemia, who bore a coat of arms of “azure three galleys argent” - no definitive word on whether he was also the Good King of the same name who last looked out on the Feast of Stephen.  And a final theory suggests it could be symbolism: three ships representing three magi.  Will we ever know the truth?  No.  No we will not.  "Get used to disappointment."

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

All the souls rejoice because no matter where history places the Christ Child - on a mystery ship or in a manger rocking out to sweet drum solos with a bovine backing chorus - the reference in the song is to the scriptural birth of Christ and the angels’ proclamation that his arrival heralds ‘peace on earth and good will to all men’.  Which, let’s be honest, really is something every soul could sing gladly about were it to be accomplished in our time.

Then let us all rejoice amen
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
Then let us all rejoice amen
On Christmas Day in the morning

Hug your cuppa as you watch those ghost ships traverse the dusty road to Bethlehem and try not to go deaf from all the bell-ringing.  Rejoice, you ingrate!  It’s Christmas Day!  In the morning! 

- Corinne Simpson