More Christmas Carols, More Questions

Let’s take a look at some more Christmas carols. These are all familiar carols, and quite old. But how old? And some contain some odd references. What do ships have to do with Christmas? And what, really, is “figgy pudding?” Read on!

We Three Kings
We Three Kings

We Three Kings

Have you ever been to a Sunday School Christmas program? Some are well-done, some are cute, and sometimes there is one that no one wants to remember! How about a college Christmas performance? Hopefully it is a better performance than the one local church grade school kids presented. In either case, I don’t think much original material is used. And even if there was an original song presented, I doubt it would become a sensation, be used for over 150 years, and be known around the world. That is the story of this Christmas carol.

John Henry Hopkins, Jr. wrote “We Three Kings” for a Christmas pageant in 1857, probably in New York City. This was really the first Christmas carol written in America that gained such widespread popularity.  (It was written before “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Away in a Manger.”) Another unusual fact about this carol is that Hopkins wrote both the words and the music for the song.

“We Three Kings” is based on the account in Matthew 2:1-12 about the wise men following the star and coming to see Jesus. The biblical account does not say how many wise men there were, but because it lists three gifts,people have assumed there were three wise men. The first verse of the carol introduces us to the fact of the wise men, their journey, and the star they were following. Each of the next three verses focuses on the three gifts: gold, frankincense,and myrrh. Each of the gifts signifies some aspect of Christ’s life and purpose on earth: Jesus as king, Jesus as God, and Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. The final verse uses the resurrection to summarize each of the previous verses, “Glorious now behold Him arise,
KING, and GOD, and SACRIFICE.”

I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In
I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In

I Saw Three Ships

Surely you have heard this Christmas carol. It is a lively, upbeat, joyous song. But what on earth does it mean? “I saw three ships come sailing in … on Christmas Day in the morning.” Ships? Sailing in to where?What do ships have to do with Christmas? Guess what – No one knows! It certainly does not refer to actual ships coming to Bethlehem – Bethlehem is landlocked. No seas there! People have debated these questions for years. They came up with several theories. Here are a few:

  • Ships refer to camels – “ships of the desert”
  • Joseph of Arimathea was a ship owner and made his money in the tin trade between Cornwall, England, and Phoenicia. Legend says that on one of his trips the Christ Child and Mary, his mother, with him to Cornwall as passengers.
  • Joseph of Arimathea brought Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the sister of Martha, with him by ship to the south of France. They were carrying a chalice that caught the blood of Christ shed as he hung on the cross.
  • The ships refer to ships that carried the relics of the three wise men (the Biblical Magi) to the Cologne Cathedral in Germany in the 12th century.
  • Another theory is that the song relates in some way to King Wenceslas because his coat of arms displayed “Azure three galleys argent.”
  • Some even say the ships refer to Columbus’ voyage and his three ships.
  • Or perhaps they are references to the Trinity, or the three Wise Men, or even “faith, hope, love.

The two most popular theories seem to be the ones referring to the “ships of the desert” and the relics of the Magi.

Whatever the interpretation, this song is a very old carol,probably dating back to the Middle Ages. Most likely this song was sung by wandering minstrels as they traveled through the English countryside. The lyrics were associated with the Cornwall and Glastonbury areas of England. This is in the far southwest area of England – associated with Celts and legends of King Arthur. The legends of Cornwall tell tales of Jesus Christ coming to Cornwall, of his love for the metal workers there. The legends also talk of Joseph of Arimathea being in the tin trade and making several voyages there to Cornwall.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

First, let’s clear up a couple terms. “Hark” means to listen, to hear. “Herald Angels” are angels making an announcement or proclamation.Think Medieval Times, castles, herald trumpets announcing the arrival of someone important. Originally the first line contained another word – “welkin.” That word meant the realm of heavenly creatures. We can be thankful that word was changed.

This is another old Christmas carol, written in the first half of the 1700’s. Charles Wesley, an English Methodist leader wrote the words to this song. Over his lifetime he wrote over 6,000 hymns, all with the purpose of teaching poor and illiterate people sound Biblical doctrine. And, like his other hymns, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” contains much doctrine. You could call it “theology in song.”

The song begins with the announcement of the angels to the shepherds concerning the birth of Christ. (Luke 2) It proclaims the reason for Christ’s coming to earth – reconciliation. The second verse refers to the deity of Christ – the everlasting Lord, incarnate Deity, our Emmanuel. The third verse continues to explain the purpose of Christ’s coming – to give life, light,healing, redemption, the second birth. Charles Wesley certainly did a thorough  job of telling the reason for Christmas!

Wesley wished for a somber and serious melody to accompany the words to his song. But the melody we associate with Wesley’s words is far from that! About 100 years after Wesley wrote the words, Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata celebrating the 400th anniversary of the invention of the movable type printing press (Gutenberg). William Cummings, an English musician and singer, took a chorus from Mendelssohn’s cantata and paired it with Charles Wesley’s words, giving us “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” as we know it today. The pairing of Wesley’s words with Mendelssohn’s words made this a festive and popular carol.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas
We Wish You a Merry Christmas

We Wish You a Merry Christmas

Let’s start with another question – what is a figgy pudding?Is it anything you would want to eat today? Evidently, figgy pudding = plum pudding = Christmas pudding = staple of very British Christmas meal. And while they originally may have contained figs, most Christmas puddings do not. Nor do they contain plums. “Plum” was a Victorian-era word that referred to dried fruits in general, and especially raisins. And “pudding” was not a custard-type dessert. It refers to any dessert. Christmas pudding is a heavy, dense, steamed cake full of dried fruits, brandy, spices, citrus peels. A genuine Christmas pudding must age for weeks, so it is usually made about five weeks before Christmas, steamed for hours, left to age, steamed again, doused in brandy, and set on fire.

Now, back to the song. No one knows who wrote the song or the music, but it seems to date back to England during the Middle Ages. The song refers to carolers going from house to house, singing and requesting treats from each house. Some referred to these carolers as “waits” because they would sing and then “wait” around for some reward for their efforts.

Another question about this carol concerns the greeting “a happy new year.” I did a bit of research into when January first became the first day of the year. And there is even debate about that – it depends on where you were at the time. In 45 B.C. Julius Caesar redid the calendar and made January 1 the beginning of the New Year. But that fell out of practice during the Middle Ages.

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII set up a new calendar (again) with the first of the year being January 1. But England and its colonies did not adopt that new calendar until 1752. Was the phrase in this carol, “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” part of the original song? Or was it added later? Again, no one really knows. So, just enjoy the song and its wishes, and have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!  

Did you miss our discussions of other Christmas carols? Read them here:

More Christmas Carols, More Questions
More Christmas Carols, More Questions

Christmas Carols – The Stories You May Not Know

Do you know where your favorite Christmas music comes from? Or why they were written? Read on, and learn the story behind these Christmas carols.

What Child Is This?
What Child Is This?

What Child Is This?

William Chatterton Dix, a manager at an English insurance company, fell quite ill. As he recovered from his illness, he had a personal spiritual revival. As a result, he wrote several spiritual poems. One of them, written in 1865, recounted the Christmas story. He titled this poem “The Manger Throne.” Later, parts of this poem were set to music and became the Christmas carol we know today as “What Child Is This?”

The carol begins with a question – “What Child is this?” Dix then included several references to the Christmas account given in Luke 2, especially angels and shepherds. Then he answers the first question with the glorious refrain that this baby is Christ, the King! The last verse refers to the gifts of the wise men and calls on all of us to come and worship this newborn king. It is interesting that he includes all social statuses in his invitation – from peasants to kings.

The melody used for this traditional Christmas hymn, “Greensleeves,” dates as far back as at least the 1500’s. It was a popular song during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and William Shakespeare even referred to the melody by name in one of his plays. No one knows for sure who combined the “Greensleeves” melody with the words for this carol. Some believe that John Stainer, who first published the carol in 1871, was likely the one to match the words to the melody.

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Ding Dong Merrily on High

“Ding Dong Merrily on High” is a lively, joyful, and fun Christmas carol. It is another Christmas carol that combines an ancient melody with new lyrics. The words don’t really tell the Christmas story. Instead, they seem to tell us to be joyful because of the Christmas story. The first verse refers to the angels singing, and, just like the angels, we should be joyful also. The refrain, “Gloria, in excelsis Deo,” is in Latin. It means “Glory to God in the highest,” the very words the angels proclaimed to the shepherds when they announced the birth of Christ.

The melody for the song first appeared in a French dance book in 1588. It had nothing to do with Christmas! The original name of the tune, translated to English, comes out as “The Servants’ Hall Brawl.” Seems like it was a rather lively and raucous dance.

In the early 1900’s an English Anglican priest named George Ratcliffe Woodward wrote the words we associate with the melody. Woodward had a keen interest in collecting ancient songs and carols. He also spent much time writing music arrangements for the Anglican church. In 1924 he worked with a man named Charles Wood and the two of them published a book of songs for holidays, Cambridge Carol Book: Being Fifty-two Songs for Christmas, Easter and Other Seasons. Included in this book was the song “Ding Dong Merrily on High.”

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God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

Another very old Christmas carol, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is a carol with a bit of controversy – what exactly does that title mean? And where does the comma belong? If the comma moves before the word “merry,” then what we get is a warning for some over-indulgent revelers to take it easy. Not really the intent of the song! What the title, and the first line of the song, indicates, instead, is a blessing or a greeting for others. May God keep you joyful, gentlemen. In fact, the phrase “God rest you merry” was a common greeting or expression at parting among friends 500 years ago. (A great example of why punctuation matters!)

Many believe that this carol, although not printed until the 1700’s, originated sometime in the 1500’s. In London, in the 1800’s, this carol was the most popular of Christmas carols. This was also the Christmas carol that Charles Dickens used in his story, “The Christmas Carol.” Some feel that this carol probably originated in London.

Both the author of the words and the composer of the music are unknown, although the melody seems to have originated in Cornwall.  The carol was first published by William Sandys in 1833. His book, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, brought about a revival of both the Christmas celebration and the singing of carols. Evidently, Queen Victoria was a great supporter of singing Christmas carols.

As is the case with many old texts, the words have been revised slightly over time. The words published in Sandys’ book had seven stanzas, another early version had eight stanzas. Most versions today have just four stanzas. And though the words of the carol may not be quite theologically correct, the sentiment expressed is a true one. As the angels, shepherds, and wise men each were joyful and amazed at the birth of the Christ child, we too should find joy in the birth of Christ and the hope that brings to a weary and sinful world.

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We Need a Little Christmas
We Need a Little Christmas

We Need a Little Christmas

Are you familiar with the musical “Mame?” Neither was I. I had heard of it but had no idea what the story was about. The story takes place in the late 1920’s, during Prohibition and right before the stock market crash. The main character, Mame, was a prominent, wealthy socialite in New York City. During one of her wild infamous parties, Mame’s orphaned 10-year-old nephew arrives at her door. She decides to take him under her wing and teach him about the world. Unfortunately, her choices do not coincide with the boy’s late father’s will, so the child is sent off to a conservative private school.

When the stock market crashes Mame loses all her wealth. To ward off depression she declares that they need to have Christmas right now – even though it is barely past Thanksgiving. Decorate, celebrate, have a holiday right now – don’t wait for Christmas to get here. The song “We Need a Little Christmas” comes from this point in the musical. The musical was based on a book by Patrick Dennis, entitled Auntie Mame. The music and lyrics for the song were written by Jerry Herman. The musical opened in 1966.

The idea of the song “We Need a Little Christmas” is that as soon as we begin to celebrate Christmas, we will feel better. The sooner, the better! Some have said that the song marks the beginning of the “Christmas creep” – start Christmas decorating and celebrating earlier and earlier, until it begins before Thanksgiving. The song has nothing to do with the real meaning of Christmas; it is all about how the season makes us feel. It sees the celebration of Christmas more as an escape from the realities of life, a postponement of the undesirable things we must face.

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O Little Town of Bethlehem
O Little Town of Bethlehem

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Phillips Brooks was the minister of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia during the mid to late 1800’s. As Christmas neared one year, he wanted a new song for the children to sing for the Christmas Eve service. As he thought about what they should sing, he remembered his earlier trip to the Holy Land in 1865. His tour of the Holy Land included a horseback ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. He remembered thinking about the shepherds of the Biblical account as he rode through the hills near Jerusalem. Those remembrances inspired him to write the words to the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

The words of the carol began by painting a picture of Bethlehem – a small town, dark, quiet, stars shining in the night sky. The lyrics go on to tell of the birth of Christ – a light, shining in the darkness of this world. They go on to call on us to receive this newborn king as the Christ-child, the Messiah, our Lord Emmanuel.

After writing the poem, Brooks needed some music to go with his words. He turned to his church organist, Lewis Redner. Redner tried for several days to come up with a suitable melody for the words but was unsuccessful. Feeling discouraged, he went to bed the night before Christmas Eve. In his sleep he seemed to hear the perfect melody. He immediately woke up and wrote the melody on paper. As the children sang the song the next day they sounded like a choir of angels.

In the United States the melody that Redner wrote is the one most commonly used with the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Both the words and the melody were published together in in a hymnal for the first time in 1871. In England, however, the words are generally set to a different tune. Ralph Vaughan Williams paired the words with the British folk tune “Forest Green” for a hymnal published in 1906. This setting is the most used in Britain. Both melodies provide beautiful settings for the text.

Redner Version – Listen Here

“Forest Green” Version – Listen Here

Have you learned anything about Christmas carols? I hope so! What is your favorite carol? Let me know in the comments below.

Did you miss our last review of Christmas Carols? Check it out Here.