Some Stories behind Christmas Carols

On this page, there are some of the stories behind the carols below.

I Saw Three Ships

I Saw Three Ships - Christmas Carol

The tune of this carol is a traditional English folk song and the words of this carol (of which there are several versions) were written by wandering minstrels as they travelled through the country. In the original version of the carol, the Three Ships were the ones taking the supposed skulls of the wise men to Cologne cathedral in Germany. However, since the Middle Ages, when it was first written, there have been many different lyrics with different Bible characters being on the ships. The most common lyrics used today are about Mary and Jesus travelling to Bethlehem. Sing along to I Saw Three Ships! (on a different site)

I saw three ship come sailing in,
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
I saw three ship come sailing in,
on Christmas Day in the morning.

And what was in those ships all three?
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
And what was in those ships all three?
on Christmas Day in the morning.

Our Saviour Christ and His lady,
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
Our Saviour Christ and His lady,
on Christmas Day in the morning.

And where they sailed those ships all three?
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
And where they sailed those ships all three?
on Christmas Day in the morning.

All they sailed in to Bethlehem,
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
All they sailed in to Bethlehem,
on Christmas Day in the morning.

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.

And all the angels in heaven shall sing,
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
And all the the angels in heaven shall sing,
on Christmas Day in the morning.

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.

And let us all rejoice again,
on Christmas day on Christmas day.
And let us all rejoice again,
on Christmas Day in the morning.

Good King Wenceslas

This carol was written in Victorian Britain by John Mason Neale to a traditional folk tune. It was written in the town of East Grinstead, in the county of West Sussex, at Sackville College where he was staying at the time. The story in the carol is about the King (or Duke) of Bohemia (an area in Central Europe which is now part of the Czech Republic) from over 1000 years ago, seeing peasants, on Boxing Day, from his castle and taking food and wood to them. The story in the carol was probably completely made up! In fact the real story of King Wenceslas (907-935) is rather gory!

Wenceslas' father was the Duke of Bohemia and a Christian but it's thought that his mother might have been a pagan. His father died when he was 12 and, as he was not old enough to become Duke until he was 18, his mother took control of the land as regent. During this time his grandmother, Ludmilla, took care of Wenceslas and brought him up as a Christian (she smuggled priests into the house to help teach him). It's thought that His mother had Ludmilla banished to a distant castle where she was murdered by the Queen's guards!

Wenceslas was still a Christian after this and learned to read and write, something which was unusual for even a King/Duke in those days! He had local Bishops smuggled in at night to teach him the Bible. When he reached 18, Wenceslas took control of his dukedom. He then defended Bohemia from a couple of invasions by Dukes of neighbouring regions and legend says that he banished his mother and her pagan followers from his castle.

Wenceslas put in a good education system and a successful law and order system, so the parts of the carol story about him being a kind King are certainly true!

After four years of happiness, when Wenceslas was 22, his brother Boleslav, became very jealous of Wenceslas and plotted (possibly with the pagan followers of their mother) to kill Wenceslas. Boleslav invited Wenceslas to celebrate a saint's day with him, but on the way to the Church, Wenceslas was attacked and stabbed to death by three of Boleslav's followers!

The (fictitious) story told in the song was written by a Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda in 1847. He wrote many 'manuscripts' that tried to prove that Czech literature was much older and more developed than it really was. The poem was written in three languages, Czech, German, Latin, and was called 'Sankt Wenceslaw und Podiwin' (Saint Wenceslas and the Crocheteer). The Poem found it's way into the UK in the 19th Century where JM Neale put the translated words to the tune of a 13th century spring carol 'Tempus Adest Floridum' ('It is time for flowering') that was came from a collection of old religious songs called 'Piae Cantiones' that was published in 1582 in Sweden/Finland!

So this Christmas song has got quite a confusing story behind it!

Sing along to Good King Wenceslas! (on a different site)

ALL:
Good King Wenceslas looked out,
upon the Feast of Stephen,
when the snow lay round about,
deep and crisp and even:
brightly shone the moon that night,
though the frost was cruel,
when a poor man came in site,
gathering winter fuel.

KING:
Hither page and stand by me!
I you know it telling:
yonder man who is he,
where and what his dwelling?

PAGE:
Sir he lives a good way hence,
underneath the mountain;
right against the forest fence,
by Saint Agnes' fountain:

KING:
Bring me food and bring me wine,
bring me pine logs hither:
you and I will see him dine,
when we take them thither.

ALL:
Page and monarch forth they went,
forth they went together,
through the wild wind's loud lament,
and the bitter weather.

PAGE:
Sir the night is darker now,
and the wind grows stronger;
fails my heart - I know not how,
I can go no longer.

KING:
Mark my footsteps well my page,
follow in them boldly:
you shall find the winter's rage,
chills your blood less coldly.

ALL:
In his masters steps he trod,
where the snow lay even,
strong to do the will of God,
in the hope of Heaven:
therefore Christians all be sure,
grace and wealth possessing,
you that now will bless the poor,
shall yourselves find blessing.

Silent Night

The words of Silent Night were written by a Priest called Fr. Joseph Mohr in Mariapfarr, Austria, in 1816 and the music was added in 1818, by his school teacher friend Franz Xaver Gruber, for the Christmas service at St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria.

Fr. Mohr asked Franz Gruber to compose the melody with a guitar arrangement. It was several years later that Franz Gruber wrote an arrangement for the organ. Historians who have conducted research in recent years believe that Fr. Mohr wanted a new carol that he could play on his guitar.

There is a legend associated with the carol that says, Fr. Mohr wanted the carol to be sung by the children of the village at the midnight Christmas Eve service, as a surprise for their parents. But in the middle of practising, the organ broke and not a note would come from it! So the children had to learn the carol only accompanied by a guitar. They learnt the carol so well that they could sing it on its own without accompaniment.

However, there are no records to indicate that a children's choir was involved or that the organ was broken!

At Midnight Mass in 1818, Fr. Mohr and Franz Gruber sang each of the six verses with the church choir repeating the last two lines of each verse. Mohr set down the guitar arrangement on paper around 1820 and that is the earliest manuscript that still exists. It is displayed in the Carolino Augusteum Museum in Salzburg. There are a number of manuscripts of various 'Stille Nacht' arrangement that were written by Franz Gruber in later years.

The original words of the song were in German (and it was called 'Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht') and translated in to English went:

Silent night, holy night,
Bethlehem sleeps, yet what light,
Floats around the heavenly pair;
Songs of angels fills the air.
Strains of heavenly peace.

It's thought that the song might have travelled around the area with an organ repairman, Karl Mauracher, who could have taken an early arrangement with him in about 1820. Then two singing families (like the 'Von Trappes' in The Sound of Music) seem to have discovered the song and performed it as part of their concerts. In December 1832, the Strasser family performed it at a concert in Leipzig. It was first performed in the USA in 1839 by the Rainer family, who sang 'Stille Nacht' at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside Trinity Church in New York City. During this time the tune changed to the one we know and sing today!

It was translated into English in 1863 by John Freeman Young. The carol was sung during the Christmas Truce in the First World War in December 1914 as it was a song that soldiers on both sides knew!

By the time that the carol was famous, Fr Mohr had died. Franz Gruber wrote to music authorities in Berlin saying that he had composed the tune, but no one believed him and it was thought that Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven had written it! But then the 1820 manuscript was found and in the top right corner Fr Mohr had written: 'Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber.'.

It's now one of the most, if the the most, recorded songs in the world! I've got over 40 versions in my collection of Christmas music! Sing along to Silent Night! (on a different site)

The 12 Days of Christmas

In England, between 1558 and 1829, it was not legal for Catholics to practice their kind of Christianity in public or private. Being a Catholic was treated as a bad crime. If you even owned a Catholic Bible, you could be put in prison! Catholics were stopped from worshipping because King Henry VIII fell out with the Catholic Church and started his own 'Protestant' Church (what is now the Church of England). There were many people who were still Catholics and they worshipped in secret.

'The Twelve Days of Christmas' was written in England at the beginning of this time. Some people think that it was written to help children learn about their Catholic religion. In the carol, the days are supposed to represent special symbols and have hidden meanings, because it was illegal to have anything in writing that would indicate that you were a Catholic.

But there's no evidence that this is true and it seems most likely just to be a folk song and that the meanings were added at a later date! Also, all the symbols can be used by Protestants and other Christians! There was another song called 'A New Dial', written in 1625, which gave religious meanings to the 12 Days of Christmas, but not so people could practise their faith is secret. If you'd like to know more about this, please go to the 12 Days of Christmas page on snopes.com

The 12 Days of Christmas refer to the twelve day period that starts with Christmas day and ends on Epiphany (6th January). The song begins, On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me... The 'true love' was meant to represent God, the true love of the world. The 'me' in the carol is the Christian man or woman who receives these presents. The meanings given to the 12 Days are:

A partridge in a pear tree The 'partridge in a pear tree' is Jesus who died on the cross. In ancient times a partridge was often used as mythological symbol of a divine, sacred king.
Two turtle doves The 'two turtle doves' are the Old and New Testaments of the Bible - another gift from God. Doves also symbolise peace.
Three French hens The 'three French hens' are faith, hope and love - the three gifts of the Holy Spirit. (See 1 Corinthians 13). The French hens can also represent God the Father, His Son Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
Four calling birds The 'four calling birds' are the four Gospels in the New Testament of the Bible.
Five golden rings The 'five golden rings' are the first five books of the Bible also called the Pentateuch, the Books of Moses or the Torah.
Six geese a-laying The 'six geese a-laying' are the six days of creation.
Seven swans a swimming The 'seven swans a swimming' are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. (See 1 Corinthians 12:8-11, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 4:10-11)
Eight maids a milking The 'eight maids a milking' are the eight beatitudes, Jesus' teachings on happiness. (See Matthew 5:3-10)
Nine ladies dancing The 'nine ladies dancing' are nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. (See Galatians 5:22)
Ten lords a-leaping The 'ten lords a-leaping' are the Ten Commandments in the Bible. (See Exodus 20)
Eleven pipers piping The 'eleven pipers piping' are the eleven faithful disciples of Jesus.
Twelve drummers drumming The 'twelve drummers drumming' were the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed.

How many gifts are there in total in the 12 Days of Christmas?

If you were receive all the presents in the song, you'd get 364!

Day 1 - receive 1 gift
Day 2 - receives 3 additional gifts, making 4 total gifts
Day 3 - receives 6 additional gifts, making 10 total gifts
Day 4 - receives 10 additional gifts, making 20 total gifts
Day 5 - receives 15 additional gifts, making 35 total gifts
Day 6 - receives 21 additional gifts, making 56 total gifts
Day 7 - receives 28 additional gifts, making 84 total gifts
Day 8 - receives 36 additional gifts, making 120 total gifts
Day 9 - receives 45 additional gifts, making 165 total gifts
Day 10 - receives 55 additional gifts, making 220 total gifts
Day 11 - receives 66 additional gifts, making 286 total gifts
Day 12 - receives 78 additional gifts, making 364 total gifts received.

Sing along to The Twelve Days of Christmas! (on a different site)

Christmas Traditions and Customs