The shipping forecast

Here in the Music Department, we were discussing Christmas traditions – Kate, who has spent time in Holland told us about Sinterklaas, Anna, originally from Belgium, then expanded on that. Sinterklaas traditionally arrives on a ship, along with his helpers Zwarte Pieten (now an object of some controversy especially in Holland), from Spain bearing gifts.

The companions have different names depending on where you’re celebrating the holidays in Europe. In Germany, for example, he depends on Knecht Ruprecht, whose name may be distinctly familiar to anyone who’s sat a piano exam…

The tradition of the ship travelling from afar probably has its roots in the “original” Sinterklaas, St. Nicholas. Born in Asia Minor in 270, Nicholas later became bishop of Myra. Myra had been an important port (both the apostle St. Paul and St. Luke the Evangelist had changed ships there en route to Rome), and this may have influenced the later idea of Sinterklaas’ arrival on a ship. Although the tradition seems to have begun in the Low Countries, it was popular in other nations which bordered the sea; with a particular fondness for the saint in Russia.

Nicholas died in Myra in 343. Tradition says that in 1087 his body was moved from there, ending up in Bari in Italy. It is also believed that some of the bones found their way to Venice, where Nicholas was adopted as the patron of the Venetian fleet, while a pelvic bone that arrived in the United States via Lyon, has recently been radiocarbon dated by Oxford University, as being around the right age to be a bone of St. Nick. Interestingly it matches with a missing bone from the Bari remains.

Russian icon of St. Nicholas, dating from ca. 1500.
National Museum, Stockholm.
By Bjoertvedt. Own work.
CC BY-SA 3.0

Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors (hence perhaps his frequent links to cities and nations with strong maritime traditions – such as Antwerp, Venice and the Netherlands). He also became associated with children, thieves and students; while the golden balls that he presented as a dowry for three daughters about to be sold into prostitution by their father, may have been the influence for the legend that links him with Spain, as the golden balls became confused with Seville oranges! The golden balls were probably also what caused him to become the patron saint of pawnbrokers.

Move on a couple of centuries, and Sinterklaas arrived in the New World courtesy of Dutch immigrants. Reincarnated there as Santa Claus (rather than the British Father Christmas – who was most likely a descendant of the secular figure of Sir Christemas, also known in Tudor times as “Captain Christmas”), he finally made his way back to the English speaking Old World during the Victorian period, while St. Nicholas continued to be popular in much of the Continent.

I was intrigued by Anna and Kate’s tales of Sinterklaas’ arrival on a ship, having come across several English carols which involve ships – could this be one of those folkloric traditions that get lost in translation? For rather than heralding the arrival of Sinterklaas, these carols usually involved Mary and Jesus (or sometimes  Joseph) sailing in to Bethlehem in three ships (a bit of a shock for the locals presumably, as Bethlehem is landlocked). It’s not clear in many of the carols whether we are singing about a baby Jesus, or a grown-up version, which would follow the tradition of Celtic legend that some time between his birth and the start of his ministry, Jesus spent time in Europe. Some of these legends later fed into Grail mythology, where they became ever more convoluted. Their origins are notoriously hard to pin down. Some of the Cornish legends, for example,  that appear to be of ancient origin, on further investigation can be traced no deeper than the 19th century.

One version though that is earlier is this, which is almost certainly the precursor to I saw three ships. Listen out for the middle section around 2 mins 25 seconds –

This links back to an earlier post on MusiCB3. Regular readers may remember that some time ago I wrote about a volume of music – Forbes’ Cantus produced for the Musick-School of Aberdeen; and it was in the second edition of this score published in 1666 that an early version of what would become I saw three ships was first published. It’s notoriously difficult to lay your hands on copies of this work, but if you have access to Early English Books online, you can find copies of all three editions on there, including the Ships” carol. There’s also a modern transcription in Eight early Scottish carols edited and arranged by Kenneth Elliott (item no. 5 in volume M250.a.200.6) under the title All sons of Adam.

By the time our 1682 edition of Forbes’ Cantus was published, this early version has vanished, and there’s no sign of the carol again till its publication in Sandy’s Christmas carols in 1833 (MR250.d.80.26). Here it is very recognisably the carol that we know today.

“Lambswool”, the perfect wassail drink.

Sandy is well worth a glance, if only for the long introduction with its eulogy on all things Christmas – from coffin shaped mince-pies (copying the shape of the manger) to a recipe for the perfect Wassail bowl, also known as “Lambswool”, made from ale, nutmeg, sugar, toast [!!] and roasted apples. There’s also the odd digression about doctors and turkeys [please don’t give your GP a turkey, he’s already struggling to sell all the ones his other patients have presented to him], along with advice on what to give your Elizabethan friend who has everything – do remember that the latest fashion will always be welcome, as will ginger or a cinnamon stick.

A very Merry Christmas to all, MusiCB3 will be back in the New Year. We’ll leave you with some festive Sinterklaas songs from the Netherlands.




About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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1 Response to The shipping forecast

  1. Pingback: ‘Impossible ships in impracticable positions’ : Sea songs at the UL | MusiCB3 Blog

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