I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas day, on Christmas day. I saw three ships comes sailing in on Christmas day in the morning.
The exact meaning behind this traditional, jaunty carol is debated.
We know that ships are a symbol for the church – though the reference to the ships holding a child and lady, and sailing to Bethlehem seem to knock that suggestion down. We know that ships are sometimes used as a symbol for camels, such as the ones that carried the Magi to Bethlehem. But again, considering the ships were holding the Christ-child and his mother, this still seems out.
So what do we make of this hymn?
Perhaps the secret lies in the ship as a symbol of God’s safe passage. Yes, that usually comes in the form of the church, but in this case, as there are three ships, perhaps it is God’s trinitarian form that is guarding and delivering the child and his mother safely in Bethlehem.
However you want to view the ships, at the end of the day, the key thing to remember about this carol is that Christmas morning does bring great joy in earth and in heaven, for in the Christ-child’s birth we see the salvation story continuing to be fulfilled. And that is good news for us all.
Then let us all rejoice and sing on Christmas day, on Christmas day. And all the bells on earth shall ring on Christmas day in the morning.