The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Green Grow the Rushes, Oh!

Traditional English

I'll sing you one, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What is your one, O?
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

I'll sing you two, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What are your two, O?
Two, two, lily-white boys,
Clothed all in green, O
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

I'll sing you three, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What are your three, O?
Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, lily-white boys,
Clothed all in green, O
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

I'll sing you four, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What are your four, O?
Four for the Gospel makers,
Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, lily-white boys,
Clothed all in green, O
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

I'll sing you five, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What are your five, O?
Five for the symbols at your door,
Four for the Gospel makers,
Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, lily-white boys,
Clothed all in green, O
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

I'll sing you six, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What are your six, O?
Six for the six proud walkers,
Five for the symbols at your door,
Four for the Gospel makers,
Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, lily-white boys,
Clothed all in green, O
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

I'll sing you seven, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What are your seven, O?
Seven for the seven stars in the sky
Six for the six proud walkers,
Five for the symbols at your door,
Four for the Gospel makers,
Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, lily-white boys,
Clothed all in green, O
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

I'll sing you eight, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What are your eight, O?
Eight for the eight bold rangers,
Seven for the seven stars in the sky
Six for the six proud walkers,
Five for the symbols at your door,
Four for the Gospel makers,
Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, lily-white boys,
Clothed all in green, O
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

I'll sing you nine, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What are your nine, O?
Nine for the nine bright shiners,
Eight for the eight bold rangers,
Seven for the seven stars in the sky
Six for the six proud walkers,
Five for the symbols at your door,
Four for the Gospel makers,
Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, lily-white boys,
Clothed all in green, O
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

I'll sing you ten, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What are your ten, O?
Ten for the ten commandments,
Nine for the nine bright shiners,
Eight for the eight bold rangers,
Seven for the seven stars in the sky
Six for the six proud walkers,
Five for the symbols at your door,
Four for the Gospel makers,
Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, lily-white boys,
Clothed all in green, O
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

I'll sing you eleven, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What are your eleven, O?
Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven,
Ten for the ten commandments,
Nine for the nine bright shiners,
Eight for the eight bold rangers,
Seven for the seven stars in the sky
Six for the six proud walkers,
Five for the symbols at your door,
Four for the Gospel makers,
Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, lily-white boys,
Clothed all in green, O
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

I'll sing you twelve, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What are your twelve, O?
Twelve for the twelve Apostles ,
Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven,
Ten for the ten commandments,
Nine for the nine bright shiners,
Eight for the eight bold rangers,
Seven for the seven stars in the sky
Six for the six proud walkers,
Five for the symbols at your door,
Four for the Gospel makers,
Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, lily-white boys,
Clothed all in green, O
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.

Notes from Lucy E. Broadwood and J. A. Fuller Maitland, English Country Songs. London: The Leadenhall Press, 1893.

The words of this version, which are known at Eton, are here reprinted from Camp Choruses, E.C,P.V.” The plan is exactly the same as that of the Dorsetshire version [The Twelve Apostles - Version 2], except that the practice of singing it in two parts seems to have been discarded. The tune is a little more elaborate, since the same words are not always sung to the same part of the tune, e.g., in the example, “Four are the Gospel makers.” on its first appearance, is chanted on what may be called the “reciting note” and afterwards when it follows “five,” &c., to the final phrase.

GREEN GROW THE RUSHES, OH !

1. I’LL sing you one, oh!
Green grow the rushes, oh!
One and one is all alone,
And evermore shall be so

2 Two, two for the lilywhite boys
Clothèd all in green, oh!

3. Three, three for the rivals,

4. Four for the Gospel makers.

5. Five for the symbol at your door.

6. Six for the six proud walkers.

7. Seven for the seven stars in the sky.

8. Eight for the eight bold rainers (or rangers).

9. Nine for the nine bright shiners.

10. Ten for the ten commandments.

11. Eleven for the eleven that went up to heaven,

12. Twelve for the twelve apostles.

To treat exhaustively of the history of this song would be beyond the scope of the present book, but it is to be hoped that it will some day receive proper attention from those who are competent to discuss it. It must suffice in this place to say that in different forms it occurs in very many ancient and modern languages, from Hebrew downwards. Its purport seems to have been always a more or less theological one. The reader who is interested in the song may be referred to the following authorities :—Villemarquè, Barzes Breiz, Lejean, in Revue Celtique, vol. i.,44ff. Sandys’ Carols. An interesting series of articles appeared in Longman’s Magazine for 1889, in the course of which suggestions were made as to the meaning of some of the sentences, by Dr. Jessopp and Mr. Andrew Lang. Several English versions have appeared from time to time in Notes and Queries, as for instance, in Series 4, vol. ii., p. 599; Series 4, vol. iii., p. 90 (Norfolk); Series 6, vol. 1., p. 481; Series 6, vol. ii., p. 255, &c. In course of centuries, many of the sentences have degenerated into a mere meaningless jingle, from which, however, it is not impossible to reconstruct the probable original. At the Reformation, many of the more recondite allusions would naturally be forgotten, but certain numbers are identical in all Christian versions, and even in the Hebrew version, Nos. 1 and 10 have the same meaning as in the others.

1.——With the exception of some trifling varieties of reading, as “lies all alone,” or “is left alone,” all versions agree in the couplet, which quite certainly refers to God Almighty.

2.——In the Hebrew, the tables of the law represent this number, and in version dated 1625, it is interpreted of the two testaments, The reading, in a Cornish sailors’ version, “lilywhite maids, “dates from a period when the word was not confined to one sex. The allusion is undoubtedly to Christ and St. John the Baptist, but what the meaning of “clothed all in green” may he cannot be guessed. The Scotch version, “the lily and the rose, That shine baith red and green,” is curious; it is in the form given in E. Chambers’ Popular Rhymes of Scotland.

3.——The curious readings of all the known versions maybe divided into two families: “thrivers,” “drivers,” “divers,” “the rivals,” “rhymers,” and “wisers,” on the one hand, and on the other “rare O’s,” “rear ho!” and “arrows.” It is difficult to see in any of these a corruption of any words which would bear out the interpretation almost universally given for this number, i.e., the Persons of the Trinity; an ingenious conjecture has been received, to the effect that the first of the two groups may stand for “thridings,” or “thirdings,” the word from which the Yorkshire “Riding” is derived. If the interpretation suggested by Mr. Laurence Whalley be correct, and the number refers to the Wise Men from the East, the first group of readings must be taken as corruptions for “wisers,” which actually occurs in one version. This is confirmed by the reading “strangers,” in a Cornish sailors’ version.

4.——All Christian versions agree in the reading Gospel makers,” “writers,” or “preachers.” The Hebrew version of Nos. 3 and 4 gives the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) for No. 3, and their wives (Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel) for No. 4. The curious reading “cancelled,” given in Notes and Queries, Series 6, vol. ii., p. 255, may indicate “Evangelists.”

5.——With several different combinations, the commonest readings are: “the symbol at your door,” “at your feet,” or “at your call ;“ “the simple (i.e. sinew) in my bone,” “the thimble in the bowl,” “tumblers on a board,” and the Scotch “hymnlers o’ my bower,” all of which point to one original. It is difficult to resist hazarding the guess that the first of these is actually correct, and refers to the sign of the pentacle, or pentagram, the five-pointed figure drawn with one line, thus

Drawing of a Pentagram

and very commonly inscribed on the threshold to keep away the evil one. In Goethe’s Faust, there is an allusion to this sign as the “ Drudenfuss,” or “Pentagramma,” which prevents Mephistopheles from crossing the threshold. The reading of the Dorsetshire version, “flamboys all in a row,” or “under the brow,” may possibly be a very corrupt version of the same. But “the ferrymen in the boat,” given in a Cornish version, whether or out followed by the words “and one of them a stranger,” can hardly be referred to the same origin. Mr. Lang interprets the number of the five wounds of Christ, but it is difficult to see how this solution is arrived at. “Nimble fingers” is almost certainly a late restoration of an imaginary original.

6.——In the ease of this number the solution is fairly certain, though the readings differ widely. “Bold,” “cheerful,” “proud,” or “charming,” “waiters,” “waters,” or “walkers,” are the most common, and there can be little doubt that the reference is to the six water-pots used in the miracle of Cana of Galilee. “Bowls,” “Pots,” or “Jars,” of “Water,” and “Charmed Water” are two different originals which amply account for the readings given above. Mr. Lang sees an allusion here to the “Tearful Mater,” or the “Mater Dolorosa,” but why under the number six? The guesses, “ages of the world,” “days of labour,” and “ Seraphim with six wings,” are of less authority, while the curious “provokers,” “virtuous horses,” and “lamps were burning bright,” given in the three Notes and Queries versions, must be left in their obscurity.

7.——The “seven stars in the sky” are of course the group in Ursa Major, called Charles’s Wain. The versions are almost all in agreement here, but the “seven liberal arts” appear in the 1625 version, “days of the week” in the Hebrew, and “works of mercy” in Notes end Queries, Series 6, vol. ii., 255. It is only wonderful that a number of such varied symbolism as this should not have suggested more varieties of reading.

8.——”Bold rainers,” “April Rainers,” “Bold rangers,” “bright shiners,” “archangels,” and the very odd “brown striped walkers,” plainly refer to angels, though the number is not very suggestive. Why the number of archangels should have been doubled, it is not easy to see. The 1625 version has a reference to the number of persons saved in the ark, the Hebrew refers it to the days preceding circumcision, and one or two versions have “Gospel blessings,” referring to the Beatitudes.

    Note: "April Rainers" is from another source, and is not included in this original.

9.——“Bright shiners,” and “gable rangers” are the commonest readings, but these are almost as often found for eight as for nine. With regard to the latter, Br. Jessopp’s ingenious guess that the “Angel Gabriel” was referred to here is confirmed by the Dorsetshire version given above, under eight. Two of the Notes and Queries versions give “tentmakers,” and “kings of Lunnery” for this number, and the third reads, with that of 1625, “maiden Muses.” Mr. Lang fellows the Hebrew version in interpreting it of the months preceding birth. A Cornish version gives “the moonlight bright and clear.”

10.——All versions agree in this reading.

11.——The readings are almost all in agreement, and the reference is undoubtedly to the apostles without Judas Iscariot, The “eleven stars” seen by Joseph provide the Hebrew version with an interpretation for tins number, and the eleven thousand virgins appear in one of the French versions. The Scotch version has “eleven maidens in a dance,” and a Berkshire version gives “Belsher’s (i.e., Belshazzar’s) horses.”

12.——Here again all versions agree, except of course the Hebrew, which gives the tribes of Israel, as might be expected.

The Somersetshire version given in Notes and Queries, Series .4, vol. ii., 599, &c., is deliberately made into nonsense for the sake of rhyming with the names of the numbers. The editors will be grateful for any version not hitherto recorded or for suggestions as to the interpretation of the more corrupt readings.

Sheet Music

Note:

This is one of many "counting" songs among the hymns and carols of Christmas. See the notes to the Twelve Days of Christmas.

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