My Annual Christmas Music Lament: Part I, The Worst Carols

“O Come All Ye Faithful” is so stirring that it almost makes up for all other Christmas music botches.

This isn’t so much an ethics analysis as an expression of frustration. For a cultural holiday that relies so much on music, Christmas is wounded today by accumulated  incompetence on that front, as well as a lack of diligence. Just a little more attention and industry could make the traditional repertoire so much better. You know those AT&T wireless commercials about how “good enough” isn’t good enough? That’s the issue in a nutshell. We have to hear these songs year after year. Can’t they be cleaned up?

Let’s begin with the traditional songs and carols that weren’t written to avoid the origins of Christmas. These are the strongest and most evocative of all the season’s songs, in contrast to the”popular” Christmas music that came down to us from Tin Pan Alley. I have to ask, though: What the hell is “I Saw Three Ships” about?

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.

 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.

The Virgin Mary and Christ were there
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
The Virgin Mary and Christ were there
    On Christmas day in the morning.

Pray whither sailed those ships all three?
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Pray whither sailed those ships all three?
    On Christmas day in the morning.

Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem,

    On Christmas day in the morning.

I assumed that there was an acknowledged and well-researched metaphor buried here, but no, there really isn’t. The nearest body of water to Bethlehem  is the Dead Sea, and it’s 20 miles away: Bethlehem is land-locked. Where were those ships coming from? How did Jesus and Mary end up on a ship, and why were three necessary? This is the fake news of Christmas Carols. The song makes no sense, so scholars and critics have been positing justifications for this nonsense, without any evidence at all other than, “It must mean something!” One batty theory is that the the three ships are references to the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Wikipedia concludes that the reference to three ships “is thought to originate in the three ships that bore the purported relics of the Biblical magi to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century.” Then the song has nothing to do with Christmas at all?  The entry continues, “Another possible reference is to Wenceslaus II, King of Bohemia, who bore a coat of arms “Azure three galleys argent”. Ah! It’s a song about a coat of arms! Sure! THAT makes sense.  Then it goes on to a theory that I considered years ago along with everyone else, that the ships represent the camels used by the Magi, as camels are frequently referred to as “ships of the desert.”

Except that the Three Kings rode their camels to see the child. They didn’t load Mary and Jesus up on their camels and deliver them to Bethlehem, apparently leaving poor Joseph behind.

It’s a dumb song, with a diddly melody. It also confuses kids; I know it confused me.

Now let’s look at the traditional carol with the worst-written lyrics, indeed among the worst-written of any song that more than six people have tried to sing. That would be “The First Noel.” There is a reason why most renditions end after two verses. There are hints in these of the horrible text-setting to come, but compared to verses 3-6,  the first two are pure Sondheim. Here’s the third verse:

And by the light of that same star
Three Wise men came from country far
To seek for a King was their intent
And to follow the star wherever it went
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

This is doggerel. The accents are all wrong, words are dropped out because the lyricist couldn’t figure out how to make them fit (Came from country far) or added (“To seek for a king”). Still, it’s better than verse #4:

This star drew nigh to the northwest
O’er Bethlehem it took its rest
And there it did both stop and stay
Right o’er the place where Jesus lay
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

We are told in three different ways that the star stopped: it took its rest (the allusion to a star “resting” is ridiculous); it stopped, and it stayed. Yeah, we got it: the star stopped over Bethlehem. Meanwhile, an accent falls on “did,” which is a lyrics no-no.

The author of “Louie Louie” could do better than verse #5:

Then entered in those Wise men three

Another bad accent: on in.

Fell reverently upon their knee

Upon their knee, singular? The Three Kings had a communal knee?

And offered there in His presence…

Presence? Nice one. I know the idea is to rhyme with “frankincense,” but that’s awful.

Their gold and myrrh and frankincense.

Two ands, because the lazy writer couldn’t figure out a better way to take up the extra beat. Luckily, he can end another awkward verse withe catchy chorus, the only part of the song that works:

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the kind of Israel!

The last verse, however, continues the incompetence:

Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord
That hath made heaven and earth of nought
And with his blood mankind has bought
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!

1. Another bad stress on “to”

2. Apparently “heaven” is supposed to be sung in one beat, which is impossible.

3. He has “bought” mankind? What does that mean?

33 thoughts on “My Annual Christmas Music Lament: Part I, The Worst Carols

  1. I’ve never understood the Three Ships song at all. “The First Noel” is one of my husband’s favorites, but the last verses do seem like later incompetent add-ons.

  2. I Saw Three Ships is simply a nonsense song, but it sounds good when boy choristers sing it. The First Noel actually originated in Cornwall, which has its own Celtic dialect, but even that doesn’t seem to account for the lyrics not fitting the melody at all. Some of this is poetic license, but “Full reverently upon their knee” is labored and “Each kneeling reverently on his knee” isn’t that much of a stretch. However, “knee” is sometimes used communally, like saying “We will not bend the knee before his Holiness, nor go to Canossa.”

    He has “bought” mankind means Christ has paid the price for man’s sins, but without knowing that the verse DOES produce a “huh?”

    BTW, while we’re talking Christmas songs that are not that great, what are your thoughts on John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas/War is Over” and Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas,” which are just taking the same idea as “Imagine” and painting it in Christmas colors?

  3. Also the three wise men is a common misconception. The Bible doesn’t state there number. The misconception comes from the three types of gifts (even the way it is worded makes it appear there was more than 3 gifts).

  4. And offered there in His presence…

    Presence? Nice one. I know the idea is to rhyme with “frankincense,” but that’s awful.

    This I assume is a deliberate reference to the theological concept of True Presence. Otherwise, they would have used the traditional order of “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh” which would surely be easier to rhyme.

      • By coincidence, I read this post tonight after my son had gone to sleep tonight. He’s 9 years old and we’re ‘re reading a children’s version of A Christmas Carol as his bedtime story. In one scene, the book said that people were singing The First Noel. He didn’t know the song, so I played a singalong version from YouTube. His reaction was like 8 year-old Jack’s: “That’s terrible. Nobody can sing that.”

        I checked. The real “A Christmas Carol” doesn’t say anything about The First Noel.

  5. There are a number of 18th and 19th century tunes that don’t do as well if you dip into the lesser-known middle verses (e.g., God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen…Once in Royal David’s City…), but can work well enough with the first couple of verses and the last (and maybe backing by a good organ).

    Never cared much for pop Christmas songs, so I usually subsist on a diet of Handel CDs during the season, or maybe a thumb drive with a mix of other similar music.

    Here’s a list for you, though I can’t imagine it’s ranked in any kind of order, and that Greg lake’s song is noted only because it get’s Troika some radio play. …and you won’t like #19…

  6. Went to my daughter’s “Holiday Concert” last week, where they sang about snow men and hot chocolate, going over the river and through the woods, etc. Very secular heathen stuff for a public school.

    It ended with a song, sung to the lyrics of Noel. And, my daughter said they would be singing Noel as part of the concert. I did not bat an eye at the time, heathen secular public school as it was.

    They got to it and they were singing some strange lyrics, with the various refrains being:

    No Well, No Well

    No Whale, No Whale

    No “L,” No “L” and

    Oh Well, Oh Well

    Some observations:

    A parody song. Possibly musically better than the original, considering Jack’s critique. Very amusing to the parents, who recognized the tune. The joke was probably lost on the children (7-year olds), who might not know the original. No complaints by any parents to the best of my knowledge. But, are they sneaking in a religious message covertly, or making fun of religion? Or, just good-natured taboo violations?

    But, if there had been complaints, what would the appropriate response have been? And, how would that differ from the actual response.


  7. C.S. Lewis: comment on Christian Hymns, and some of those singing them:
    “I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”

    I find that there are a great many Hymns and Christian songs, both ancient and modern, that drive me crazy, but carols more than most.
    “But little Lord Jesus
    No crying he makes”
    What, WHAT? Rubbish like that is right up there with the monastery down in the Sinai somewhere, which claims they have the original burning bush in their courtyard, when it comes to making Christians look like witless charlatans!

    Just don’t get me started on Christian movies over the years. Most of those make the songs look good!

    Surely if we are singing to the King of Kings we ought to avoid causing him to wince constantly! Naturally, there is about half a theology degree in considering that we are imperfect, fallen creatures and that God loves us doing our best even when it is somewhat average! We all love our children and grandchildren giving it their best shot.

    However, when you look at secular songs, or movies, things aren’t really any better. The vast majority of them are absolute dribble, often carried by a catchy tune or fast action and computer graphics alone. I draw a little solace in that!

    Even more annoying for me is that if you find the Bible quoted in some secular movie you can guarantee that it will be misquoted and mangled. But then, what do movies NOT misquote and mangle. They constantly do it with history.

    I should, in the interest of ‘full and open disclosure’ or whatever the expression is, say that I can’t sing, can’t hold a tune, am tone deaf and couldn’t write a decent lyric to save my life! Our church choir of some years ago asked (instructed could be a better word) me to STAY AWAY!

    P.S. If you want to see what star quality is, look up Robin and the Seven Hoods and find the scene where Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra are doing a song and dance act and Bing Crosby slides in. If I was the other two I’d be embarrassed to be seen with him.

    • How do you know if Jesus cried or not, especially at the moment the song refers to? Serious question.

      It is an interesting thought. Did the nature of Jesus (all Man and all God) change the way he acted as a baby? A child? We know it changed the way he acted as a man.

      The entire premise is that Jesus NEVER sinned. No hitting other children as a toddler. No selfish fits as a baby. No colic (divine health, don’t you know!) No childhood maladies. Injuries would heal quickly.

      Never a word of teen rebellion. Amazing, if you think about it.

    • Re the PS: Yet they were seen with him often, perhaps because both acknowledged his strong influence on their singing styles (as did Elvis.) Both also worked hard to emulate Bing’s relaxed demeanor while performing, a trait that helped all three be effective dramatic actors. The three did many TV specials together two, which inevitably made Dean play third fiddle. He didn’t seem to mind.

  8. Part of these older, opaque lyrics are probably lost due to cultural changes. They endure because some phrasing or melody keys into the subconscious. As much as they seem silly, they manage to echo a pure emotion that is more than the greed, shallowness, and pettiness of later generation. How many nuCarols will survive the jaded culture even a fraction of the run of ‘I Saw Three Ships?’

    I’ve thought about ‘…Three Ships’ a lot since I learned it decades ago. It is probably one of the oldest songs (like what child is this?) that an average person can identify and maybe sing without instruments. Also it has a nice beat and is fun to sing, like a lot of madrigals. Third, I suspect the imagry in the song relates more to the popular medieval custom of processionals taking holy relics from shrine to cathedral to church. The holy artifacts were big business and a gilded icon, aged carving, or one of five shin bones of a martyr were offered all the celebration and honors as if they were the real thing. There were a lot of representation of the holy family enacting the events as if the location was where it was so people feel part of the story, happening, much like Santa is tracked by NORAD and every town had its own Santa arrival. My town had Santa arrive to the top of a tall parking garage, three ships was the cutting edge of processions once. Carols are about meanings and symbols, faith not the scientific method, and over analyzing doesn’t really serve the purpose of ‘making a joyful noise.’

  9. Something to remember about any seasonal “carol” – often they were meant to accompany dancing. So you get I Saw Three Ships and you dance. Ever been to a performance of The Christmas Revels? Carols and dancing galore! And nowadays you might see any number of “interesting” dancing by some of our current musical celebrities as they “sing” Christmas “carols” like “Last Christmas” (which, if I hear one more time, will send me screaming into the darkness).

  10. I’ve done a preliminary survey of the Christmas songs two of our local radio stations are playing. The data is incomplete, only about a week’s worth of playlists are archived for view…and I don’t know if there were black out periods but there were several instances of no music played for hours (or at least archived). But, there’s 2,480 individual playings of 129 songs, so hopefully the power of large numbers spread out relatively evenly over time will help correct any missing data. I may reference to a 2016 survey I did, when at time of completion, aggregated 4,566 individual playings of 98 songs on only one station for about a month and a week of playtime. It’s not perfect, but ok. In both surveys, I treated the same song by different artists as one song when counting individual instances of singing. I counted “medleys” or “mashups” of two songs as individual songs as well.

    About half the time, so far, in 2019, on my local stations, you were going to hear one of these 14 songs:

    1) Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (which was the #2 song in 2016)
    2) Sleigh Ride (which was the #1 song in 2016)
    3) Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town (which was the #6 song in 2016)
    3) Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (this one skyrocketed since 2016, where it was 23rd in rank…not even in the top half)
    5) Frosty the Snowman (#15 in 2016)
    6) Carol of the Bells aka Ring Christmas Bells (up from #48)
    7) Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree (fell from #4)
    8) Winter Wonderland (came up from #25)
    9) Jingle Bell Rock (fell from #3)
    10) It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year (#7 in 2016)
    11) Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (#12 in 2016)
    12) A Holly Jolly Christmas (up from #21 in 2016)
    13) Jingle Bells (up from #37 in 2016)
    14) It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas (up from #34)

    Interesting first impressions here are the nature of the songs that came up significantly: Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Carol of the Bells, Winter Wonderland, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, A Holly Jolly Christmas, Jingle Bells, and It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas are all classics. Songs from the 2016 top half that fell significantly were a blend of some classics and some modern.

    In 2016, I complained about 5 songs, but gave 1 a pass:

    “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – When I did a quick review in 2017 or 2018, the song was almost non-existent on the radio. But it’s almost returned to it’s 2016 level of play. Where at the end of the season in 2016, it had been played about 2.4% of the time, at this point this year, it’s been heard about 2.2% of the time.

    “Merry Xmas (War Is Over)” – The ever wretched cacophany has decreased in play…but not by much, fro 2% to 1.9%. Let’s work on getting that down to 0%.

    “Do They Know It’s Christmas” – The political message has plummeted from 2.1% in 2016 to 0.3% now.

    “Do You Hear What I Hear?” – The political but enjoyable song I gave a pass to when complaining in 2016 because at the least author experienced war as a participant, unlike the awful John Lennon. This one has also fallen 2.4% to 1.3% now.

    “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” – Catchy but irritating, in my opinion. As I characterized in 2016 – “Either the song is, at worst, about a mom, disillusioned with her husband, getting some slap-and-tickle on the side with the guy who is supposed to encourage good behavior or at best, it’s about a mom and dad whose kinky ideas of cosplay can’t wait until they’ve gotten a baby-sitter. Ideally, we assume the latter option, but even then, the kid leaves the scene pretty much convinced that mom is harlot getting her debauch on with a symbol of innocence and purity.” This one fell 2.6% to 1.5%.

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