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 traveled 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 traveling 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 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 1853 by John Mason Neale to a traditional folk tune (which had been used as a Spring carol for several hundred years!). 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 Czechia) 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 to reflect the view that you should be charitable at Christmas. 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 pre-Christian/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 neighboring regions and legend says that he banished his mother and her pre-Christian/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 pre-Christian/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)

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Eve 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' arrangements 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 the first translation into 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.

Now the first verse is normally translated as:

Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

It's thought that the song might have traveled 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 most, recorded songs in the world! 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 special 'Catholic' meanings were added at a MUCH later date!

Also, all the symbols can be used by Protestants and other Christians, not just by Catholics! There was another song called 'A New Dial' (also called 'In Those Twelve Days'), which goes back as far as at least 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

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 sent (or gave) to me...". In 'A New Dial' (and the legend/myth of the song having secret meanings), the 'true love' was meant to represent God, the true love of the world. The 'me' was meant to represent man or woman who receives these presents. The other meanings are given in 'A New Dial' are: (Extra item in brackets are extra meanings from the myth!)

A partridge in a pear tree The 'partridge in a pear tree' means God. (In 'The Twelve Days of Christmas', it can also mean Jesus who died on the cross. In ancient times a partridge was often used as mythological symbol of a divine, sacred king. Partridges weren't introduced into England, from France, until the 1770s, which also points to any extra meanings being added later!)
Two turtle doves The 'two turtle doves' are the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.
Three French hens The 'three French hens' are the Christian Trinity: God the Father, His Son Jesus and the Holy Spirit. (The hens could also mean faith, hope and love - the three gifts of the Holy Spirit. [See 1 Corinthians 13]; or the Wise men who visited Jesus; or the three gifts they brought him!)
Four calling birds The 'four calling birds' (Originally 'four colly [or collie] birds' - an old name for Blackbirds; but there are some early versions with 'Coloured birds', 'Canary birds' and even 'Ducks quacking'!) are the four Gospels in the New Testament of the Bible. (They could also mean the four major Old Testament prophets [Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel]; or the four horsemen of the Apocalypse!)
Five golden rings The 'five golden (or gold) rings' are the five senses. (They could also mean 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 swan a swimming' are the seven 'liberal arts' studied in medieval universities. (They could also mean 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 the nine muses from Greek Mythology. (The ladies dancing could also mean 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' represent eleven thousand [meaning a lot of people] who had been martyred (killed) for the Christian faith. (The pipers piping could also mean the eleven faithful disciples of Jesus.)
Twelve drummers drumming The 'twelve drummers drumming' were the twelve disciples of Jesus (They could also mean the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed!)

Some early versions also have the last four days/items in a different order: nine drummers drumming, ten pipers piping, eleven ladies dancing and twelve Lords a leaping. The order we have today was set in 1909 when it was published by Frederic Austin, a famous English singer and composer. He also added the extra beats in 'Five go-ld/gol-den rings' and starting each verse with 'On...'

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)

Little Drummer Boy / Carol of the Drum

The Little Drummer Boy was written in 1941 by the American composer Katherine Kennicott Davis and she originally called it the 'Carol of the Drum'.

Katherine Kennicott Davis was born in January 1892 in Saint Joseph, Missouri. She taught piano at Wellesley College and wrote over 1000 choral works during her life, both sacred and secular.

The song tells the story of a boy who has nothing to give the baby Jesus, except to play him his drum.

The inspiration for the song might have come from a 17th century French carol 'Patapan' which has a similar theme of shepherds playing basic musical instruments for the baby Jesus. In an interview the chair of the musical department of Wellesley College it's stated:

"One day, when she was trying to take a nap, she was obsessed with this song that came into her head and it was supposed to have been inspired by a French song, ‘Patapan'. And then ‘patapan’ translated in her mind to ‘pa-rum-pum-pum,’ and it took on a rhythm."

The song was first recorded in 1951 by The Trapp Family Singers, the real life family behind the story in The Sound of Music. In 1957 The Jack Halloran Singers recorded an arrangement for a Christmas album, but with a slightly different arrangement. And this is the one we're familiar with today.

The song really became popular in 1958 when it was recorded and released as a single by Harry Simeone but still as the Carol of the Drum. It wasn't really known as The Little Dummer Boy until it appeared as that title on The Harry Simone Chorale's Christmas Album 'Sing We Now of Christmas' a year later in 1959.

In 1967 there was a TV special of The Little Drummer Boy which added to its popularity. Since then it's become a Christmas classic and has been recorded by all sorts of different artists from the duet of Bing Crosby and David Bowie, to the unique vocal stylings of Bob Dylan!

Sing along to Little Drummer Boy! (on a different site)