When thinking of Christmas, we think of Santa Claus, nativity, Christmas trees, lights….but when thinking of Christmas at sea, we probably immediately think of the traditional carol “I Saw Three Ships”. Did you know this song? Repeatedly made popular by interpretations in modern recording ranging from Sting to Amy Grant to traditional orchestras, it is a tune dating back to the 17th century.
But the truth is that nobody really knows who wrote it or even what it entirely means.
The lyrics have confounded historians for centuries and it is believed the song’s connection to Christmas is merely a sailor’s song of hope.
The song talks of three ships sailing into Bethlehem, a little town some 30 kilometers removed from the nearest body of water, and even if in biblical stories there are really lot of ships in the Dead Sea, it would be impossible for every ship to sail into Bethlehem!
Some say the ships are symbolic of “ships of the desert”, otherwise known as camels. Like connection is probabably so rough, but makes a little sense, because the three Magi have widely been regarded throughout history as arriving in Bethlehem on camels.
The number three has a great significance to Christianity and the use of it in this song may reach beyond the Magi to the Trinity, giving the song a deeper meaning when it sings of three ships sailing into Bethlehem in Christmas day.
Originally the song was probably a popular children’s tune to teach Christian principles, as many carols of Christmas are.
Christmas at Sea can largely be tied to the ancient character of St. Nicholas, who was also the patron saint of sailors and of ships. This largely came about due to a miracle credited to Nicholas while he was Bishop of Myra.
According to the legend, the land round about was suffering from a 3 year famine and in an effort to provide food for the starving citizens, Nicholas approached the captains of the sea vessels anchored in the neighboring harbor. Knowing the ships were full of grain bound for distant customers, Nicholas approached the captains asking for 10 percent of their cargo, in a kind of Christmas tithing, with the promise that if each ship did so they would be accounted for full cargos when they reached their destination.
The miracle of the story focuses on feeding the people, and the miracle made Nicholas famous around the world: in every port, the sailors told his story and they claimed him as their patron saint of safety on the high seas.
Still today many ports, most notably in Greece, have icons of Nicholas, surrounded by models of small ships made of silver or carved of wood. Sailors returning safely from sea, place these in gratitude to St. Nicholas for protection received. In some places sailors, instead of wishing one another luck, say, “May St. Nicholas hold the tiller!”.
The influence of sailors and the message of Christmas are really evident in Hawaii.
The very first Christmas Day celebrated in Hawaii was in 1786 by the English sea captain George Dixon and his crew aboard the Queen Charlotte. The ship was anchored in Waimea Bay off the island of Kauai. The celebration consisted of a special feast prepared for the crew and captain by the cooks in the galley.
In 1819, Christmas presents were given to island children by the English sea captain, Nathaniel Portlock, followed by food gifts presented by ambassadors.
Until 1837, Christmas was not celebrated regularly by the residents of the islands, and in 1856, the ruler of the Hawaiian Islands, King Kamehameha IV, proclaimed December 25 to be the official day of thanksgiving.
In 1858, Santa Claus, there know as Kanakaloka, made his first appearance to the Hawaiian Islands by delivering presents to Hawaiian children.
In 1862, Christmas Day was officially proclaimed a national holiday by King Kamehameha IV who was mourning the loss of his son, the heir to the throne.