Green Grow the Rushes, O

Green Grow The Rushes, Ho (or O) (aka The Twelve Prophets, or The Carol Of The Twelve Numbers, or The Teaching Song, or The Dilly Song), is a folk song (Roud #133) popular across the English speaking world. The song was first recorded in Hebrew in the 16th century and probably much older than that; at the present, it is sometimes sung as a Christmas carol. The song is not to be confused with Robert Burns' Green Grow The Rashes, O, with which it shares only the title. It is cumulative in structure, with each verse built up from the previous verse by appending a new stanza. The first verse is:

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


The twelfth, cumulated, verse runs:

I'll sing you twelve, Ho (or oh)
Green grow the rushes, Ho
What are your twelve, Ho?
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 April Rainers, (or April Showerers, or occasionally Eight for the eight bold Rangers)
Seven for the seven stars in the sky, (or Seven for the seven who went to Heaven)
Six for the six proud walkers, (or brown walkers)
Five for the symbols at your door, (or my door)
Four for the Gospel makers,
Three, three, the rivals,
Two, two, the lily-white boys,
Clothèd all in green, Ho (or Clothe them all in green, oh)
One is one and all alone (sometimes One is one and one alone, One and one is all alone, or One is one and stands alone)
And evermore shall be (it) so.


The lyrics of the song are in many places extremely obscure, and present an unusual mixture of Christian catechesis, astronomical mnemonics, and what may very well be pagan cosmology.

The song's origins are uncertain, but the first recorded instance of it is in Hebrew: it may have originated in the intricacies of medieval Jewish thought, although the Kabbalistic mystics were seldom interested in composing songs. A parallel may also be drawn with the Jewish Passover song Echad Mi Yodeia (Who Knows One?), wherein the number five represents the books of the Pentateuch, two represents the luchot habrit (the stone tablets on which the 10 commandments are said to have been carved), and one represents "Our Lord, our Lord, our Lord who is in the heavens and the earth".

"Green grow the rushes, Ho (or O)" sounds sufficiently out of place that one is inclined to ascribe it to the same origin as "Fine flowers in the valley" in one version of the ballad The Cruel Mother – namely, an attempt to turn a mis-remembered line of Gaelic into its nearest English phonetic equivalent.

However, the song did not originate in the British Isles; thus, the line must have been included for a conscious reason, or been the product of an earlier disruption.

Twelve for the twelve Apostles
This refers to the twelve Apostles of Jesus, although the number has other meanings; it may originally have referred to the months of the year, for example.

Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven
These are the eleven Apostles who remained faithful (minus Judas Iscariot), or possibly St Ursula and her companions.

Ten for the ten commandments
This refers to the ten commandments given to Moses.

Nine for the nine bright shiners
The nine may be an astronomical reference, although counting the Sun, Moon and planets known before 1781 yields at most eight. It could potentially refer to the nine orders (or 'choirs') of angels.

Eight for the April Rainers (or April Showerers, or occasionally Eight for the eight bold Rangers)
The April rainers refer to the Hyades star cluster, called the 'rainy Hyades' in classical times, and rising with the sun in April – the Greeks thought of them as inaugurating the April rains. "Eight bold rangers" is probably a recent corruption.

Seven for the seven stars in the sky (or Seven for the seven who went to Heaven)
The seven are probably either the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades star cluster, or perhaps Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. They may also be the planets or other stars. Alternatively, the seven stars may be those referred to in Revelation chapter 1. They are first cited in verse 16 as being held in the right hand of Christ and then explained as referring to seven angels of the seven early Christian churches. The seven stars could also be a reference to the Jewish cross, which is also a constellation over Israel.

Six for the six proud walkers (or brown walkers)
The six seems to be a historical reference, but remains obscure. It is possible that they were members of a Saxon warband who beat the bounds of their fortified camp in a traditional way between AD 450 and 1066. Perhaps it is a Biblical reference to Ezekiel 9:2 - six men with swords come in a vision of the prophet to slaughter the people, whose leaders (8:16) have committed such sins as turning East to worship the Sun, and "have filled the land with violence". It may also be a corruption of 'waters', but what "the six bold waters" would refer to remains elusive.

Five for the symbols at your door (or my door)
This probably alludes to the practice of putting a pentagram at the door of a house to ward off witches and evil spirits; this was relatively common in the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, and is alluded to in no shortage of literary works from or set in those eras. It can also refer to the five books of Moses - the pentateuch. An alternative interpretation is given by John Timpson in his book Timpson's England, where he states that it refers to five symbols displayed above the doorways of houses that would shelter Catholic priests. He gives an example a house where these can still be seen. The symbols above the door could also mean the mezuzah, which contains a section of the Torah and is inscribed with symbols.

Four for the Gospel makers
This refers to the four Evangelists, Mathew, Mark, Luke and John.

Three, three, the rivals
Some have suggested that the three alluded to here are the Trinity, but this leaves "the rivals" unexplained. It could also refer to the three major religious traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, or to the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, alluding to the previous line. These three give similar though slightly different accounts of the life of Christ. The "three rivals" could also be Peter, James and John, who are often mentioned together in the Gospels and at one time: "A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest" (Luke 22:24). However, only James and John are mentioned asking for special treatment in Mark 10:35-45, James and John's mother asks for her sons to have special treatment in Matthew 20:20-28, and the passage in Luke 22:24 uses a generic "them" to refer to all of the disciples. Peter is the next person spoken to by Jesus, but the ensuing conversation does not seem to refer to the discussion of a rivalry among the disciples. Pastor Paul Kolch of Trinity Lutheran Church in Sacramento taught that the three referred to Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, who resisted burning in the fiery furnace and were "rivals" to the Babylonians.

Some suggest it refers to three similar and adjacent mountains in Wales, Yr Eifl.

It has also been suggested that "rivals" is a corruption of "the arrivals" and refers to the three Magi of the Nativity arriving at Jesus' cradle; or that it is a corruption of the Yorkshire "thirdings" or "thridings", meaning "three" and refers to the Christian trinity.

Another possibility is that this line refers to Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, the three goddesses between whom the Judgement of Paris was made.

It could refer to the three of the four "Gospel Makers," the attributed writers of the Synoptic Gospels who might be called rivals with one another, since their Gospels are based on a common source or sources and tell much the same story.

Two, two, the lily-white boys
Clothèd all in green, Ho (or Clothe them all in green, O)
The two remain obscure. Jesus and John the Baptist have been suggested, as have the holly and the ivy (although the holly berry is red and the ivy berry is black, both have white wood and are evergreen). Pagan tradition also has the holly and the ivy as male and female, so they are not both "boys". The two may, instead, be holly and mistletoe (which has white berries with green branches), which would align more closely with the tradition of the defeat at Yule of the Holly King by the Oak King (mistletoe 'traditionally' grows on oak trees, although it will grow on other types of tree). Robert Graves, indeed, suggested that they are the Holly King and Oak King. There is also some suggestion that the two may be the Old and New Testaments, perhaps referring to some mediaeval tradition, although "Clothèd all in green" strongly suggests that the two "boys" were in some way connected with the growth of plants.

Another explanation is that the statues of St John and Our Lady which, in Christian Churches, flank the Crucifix on the Altar reredos or the Rood screen were, during Holy Week, bound with rushes to cover them. (During Holy Week, from Palm Sunday until Easter Day, all statues, crosses, and crucifixes are traditionally covered from view, and all flowers are removed from the Church). The two figures were portrayed in similar garments, hence "lily-white boys", and wrapped in rushes they were "Clothèd all in green".

The phrase could also allude to an ancient ritual of painting two people from a village white and sending them off to die, therefore cleansing the village of its sins. The verse has also been changed to "lily-white doves" in some interpretations of the songs in reference to Noah's Ark.

One other explanation is that the boys referred to are the twins Castor and Pollux, both of whom appear in Greek mythology. As the constellation of Gemini is named after them, this would provide yet another astronomical reference in the song.

One is one and all alone (sometimes One is one and one alone or One is one and stands alone)
One would suppose that the "One" of the last line would be God, but God in the Middle Ages was more commonly thought of as the Trinity, and "One is one and one alone", if applied to God, sounds more like Jewish or Muslim theology than Christian in its strong insistence on the Divine unity.

Alternative titles

  • Children Go Where I Send Thee
  • I'll Sing You One Oh
  • The Carol Of The Twelve Numbers
  • The Twelve Apostles
  • The Dilly Song
  • The Dilly Carol
  • The Counting Song

Related works

  • The spiritual Children, Go Where I Send Thee has a similar format, counting down from ten (twelve, in some versions) biblical references.
  • The song The Ten Commandments, on Figgy Duff's album After The Tempest is a variant of this song that that does not include the eleventh and twelfth symbols.
  • There is also a song titled Green Grow The Rushes on REM's album Fables Of The Reconstruction, which refers to and is partially based upon this song.
  • A filk song titled High Fly the Nazgul-O! uses the same tune but the lyrics have been changed to refer to The Lord of the Rings.
  • The comedy character Rambling Syd Rumpo sang parodies called Green Grow My Nadgers, O and Green Grows My Boglin' Fork on the Round The Horne radio comedy programme.
  • In the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta The Yeomen Of The Guard, the opening phrases of the duet I Have A Song To Sing, O were inspired by a variant of this song, beginning "Come, and I will sing you" .
  • In The Children of Green Knowe, by Lucy M. Boston, Tolly sings the last two lines of the song.
  • In the 'Too Many Christmas Trees' episode of the 1960s U.K. T.V.Series The Avengers, Steed and sings the first two verses of this song to avoid having his mind influenced by his adversaries with psychic powers.
  • The Society for Creative Anachronism kingdom of Ealdormere has a filk version of the song, using the tune and the count-down format; the final line is "And one for the land of Ealdormere that ever more shall be so".


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