By THE ENTHUSIAST
For all its lilting charm, "I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In)" – an English carol dating back to the 17th century – is arguably the most mysterious of all the Christmas classics. Christianity is full of triads, it’s true, but three ships? Not so much. And if that’s not enough to get your inner Sherlock puffing at his meerschaum, consider the point below.
Where exactly are those three ships headed? The carol makes it clear:
O, they sailed into Bethlehem On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day O, they sailed into Bethlehem On Christmas Day in the morning
The Enthusiast encourages the reader to pause at this point and look up Bethlehem on Google Earth. As you’ll see, Bethlehem is landlocked, situated some twenty miles between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea. Sailing into Bethlehem, as such, is an accomplishment worthy of Fitzcarraldo.
Ships On A Trip
Contemplating these nautical irregularities, Canadian songsmith Bruce Cockburn has reportedly suggested that it all comes down to ergot – a fungal hallucinogen known to have grown in the rye bread that served as a staple back when the carol was composed. The Enthusiast is entirely open to this possibility, and wonders if Mr. Cockburn might possibly have any ergot on hand to share.
The Dromedary Theory
Others have attempted to solve the landlock problem by claiming that the lyricist was actually referring to camels, the so-called "ships of the desert." The Enthusiast applauds the ingenuity of this notion, but doubts that even the most generous of observers would describe camels as "sailing." ‘I saw three ships go clomping by’ does, however, create a whole new set of problems.
O Magnum Mysterium
Whatever may be on those ships of three, and wherever they may be going, it’s simply a lovely carol. And as we’ve all learned from the Hallmark Channel, nothing beats a good Christmas mystery.
Number four in a series.
4 December 2020
The Enthusiast (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the pen name of critic Michael Collins. He reports back only on what’s good, never what’s bad. He is currently imbued with the holiday spirit.