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Fast Facts: I Saw Three Ships— A Christmas Carol

“I saw three ships come sailing in

⁠On Christmas day, on Christmas day;

I saw three ships come sailing in

⁠On Christmas day in the morning.”

The classic Christmas carol, “I Saw Three Ships,” is an English carol dating all the way back to the 17th century, thought to be written in Derbyshire– a ceremonial county in the East Midlands of England but was also published by English lawyer and antiquarian, William Sandys in 1833. Sandys’ lyrics are the most recognized, and his song features nine verses. Sometimes referred to as “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In,” the song is thought to be traditionally known as “As I Sat on a Sunny Bank” and was particularly popular in Cornwall.

The original text refers to three ships sailing to Bethlehem, even though the Dead Sea was the closest body of water, roughly 20 miles away. The suggestion of these three ships is believed to have derived from the three ships that held the alleged remains of the three kings of the nativity during the 12th century.

A 19th-century version titled “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing by On New Year’s Day” stated that three beautiful women were on the ship at a wedding conducted on New Year’s Day.

Martin Shaw wrote an arrangement featured in The Oxford Book of Carols, and Sir David Willcocks’ song arrangement can be found in The Carols for Choirs carol books.

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