Not every traditional Christmas song and carol translates well to modern musical stylings. Unless your station or streaming channel plays or mixes in more traditional songs it’s possible there will be songs that disappear from the holiday playlist. Frankly I can’t remember the last time I heard “I Saw Three Ships” on the radio outside of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day itself, when radio stations tend to let their DJs stay home and everything’s automated, or a family gathering (when we’re allowed to have those again) may put a Christmas station on the radio or smart device. Even in the weeks building up I haven’t really heard it.
I really couldn’t find who actually wrote the song, which probably already tells you how old it is. I know it’s a traditional English folk song, the earliest publishing being from the 17th century, that’s undergone a few changes over the years, which may have led to the minor confusion as to what the song is about. As we’ll get to, it may or may not be about actual ships, depending on how well the writer of the version you hear knows Israel geography. I didn’t listen to a whole lot of covers, with the latest version that came up in the search for lyric videos being a live performance by the band Barenaked Ladies, a group of fully-dressed men I usually enjoy…but when they start singing about salad dressing I’m pretty sure they aren’t following any of the traditional lyrics. Hopefully YouTube still have the first video I decided to go with. Of the ones I tested it was the best version.
I mentioned some alterations have happened over the years, and that may have led to a misunderstanding to what the song, or at least this version, is referring to. One source mentioned the ships were carrying the skulls (another went with “relics”) of the Three Wise Men to Germany’s Cologne Cathedral. Another possibly connects to the coat of arms of Wenceslaus II, King of Bohemia according to another source. (Not to be confused with the one from the namesake song I’ve already covered. Check it out; it’s a fascinating history.) Yet another suggestion was that it had something to do with three women in a New Years wedding, which may actually be another version of the song. Personally none of these sound right to me. Carrying either the skulls or relics from the Wise Men isn’t in itself Christmasy, the coat of arms even less so since it’s not even the right Wenceslaus, and the wedding may be from a different version.
I tend to agree with what the video (if YouTube hasn’t dropped it) says, that the “ships” are actually the camels, referred to as the “ships of the desert”, and the whole ship thing is a metaphor. The nearest body of water, the Dead Sea, is 20 miles away from Bethlehem. Granted, it’s suggested that they actually met the Christ child in Egypt, where Mary and Joseph snuck off to with baby Jesus when Herod decided to go killin’ babies to keep his power…though he’s probably be dead before the baby could grow up to seize the throne…and Herod ended up dying anyway before Jesus reach one year old. However, I don’t think the songwriters would have heard that part back then though I don’t think three ships would make that kind of trip (from tributaries and rivers and that’s even if the journey hit an ocean…which the Wise Men wouldn’t use as they traveled by land). The metaphor for the Wise Men making the land journey and meeting Jesus and his mother (the “lady”) makes the most sense.
Will this song have a future? I don’t know. I’m still not sure how “Good King Wenceslas” makes it on the radio though it suffers the same problem. The current stewards of culture don’t really bother with the past anymore unless it involves subversion, zombies, or is ties to an existing show set in the Middle Ages or something. “I Saw Three Ships” really doesn’t translate well to other music formats…maybe country as that style has traditionally also been good at storytelling. While it doesn’t need as much history as “Wenceslas” I’m not sure today’s generation, pardon me for sounding like an old man yelling at “dem durn kids”, can connect to this song, and that may even be true to a lot of my generation. However, it is a long-standing Christmas song from our past and I hope it finds a way to not be forgotten.