“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!”
The traditional carol “I Saw Three Ships” is one of the older ones. So old, in fact, that experts who are expertish in such matters cannot say for sure where it originated. Likewise they can’t say exactly what it’s about. What do ships have to do with Christmas, anyway? Was this an old sailor’s song that somehow became associated with Christmas? The explanation could be a lot darker.
The lyrics were first written down sometime in the 1600s though the song is likely older, perhaps far older. So what *do* they mean? Well, for one thing, there are different lyrics, though they all say the same basic thing; the singer witnesses three ships come “sailing in” on Christmas Day. Seeking the most likely explanation, the ships have been said to represent the three Wise Men (this in itself is apocryphal, as nowhere in the Bible does it say that there were three of them) or Joseph, Mary, and the Baby. A more likely explanation, though, is that the song references the transportation—by three ships—of the relics, in particular the skulls, of the three Magi to Cologne Cathedral in Germany.
According to legend, Empress (later Saint) Helena, the mother to Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, brought the remains of the Magi to Constantinople in the 300s AD. Then in 344 they were sent to Milan, and in 1164 to Cologne, where they remain to this day. It’s certain that they have *somebody’s* remains at the Cathedral, but the original three Wise Men? As is the case with all such relics, I remain skeptical.
Anyway, check out some of those alternate lyrics to the carol I spoke of. “I asked ’em what they’d got on board, they said they’d got three crawns. I asked ’em where they was taken to. They said they was gain’ to Cologne upon Rhine. I asked ’em where they came frae. They said they came frae Bethlehem.” And “crawns”, an earlier version of “crowns” here means “skulls”.
There. You can break this out at your next Christmas party and impress (or frighten) your friends with your knowledge.