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The Haunting Origin Stories of Three of Your Favorite Childhood Nursery Rhymes

Nursery Rhymes are the nice little songs or poems that children sing when they are growing up as they often provide wisdom or little life lessons. When one looks at them from afar, they seem like harmless fun. However, when one looks closer at the lyrics and learns some historical context, they will quickly find out that is not the case. Although it may be the tail-end, it is still Spooky Season! So, in honor of Halloween, I thought the perfect way to celebrate would be to discuss the creepy origins of three of your favorite childhood nursery rhymes. 


Rock-a-Bye Baby

“Rock-a-bye baby

On the tree top,

When the wind blows

The cradle will rock,

When the bough breaks

The cradle will fall and

Down will come baby,

Cradle and all.”


There are actually many theories as to the specific origin story of Rock-A-Bye Baby, but the specific one that I will be talking about is centered around King James II. Before his reign King James II famously converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, which with the large sense of mistrust of Catholics at the time is important to note. When I was younger my mother would sing this to me all the time to help me sleep. But once I read about one of the theories for the origin of this lullaby, I definitely would have trouble sleeping again. During the time of King James II, it would be common for people to leave their baby cradles hanging in trees so that the wind can rock them. Allegedly, it was widely believed that this story is about the son of King James II and his wife Mary of Modena. As the story goes, their son was not theirs at all! It was believed to have been a Catholic baby that was stolen out of his initial cradle and brought to the couple as a way to ensure the continuance of a purely Catholic bloodline. I don’t know about you, but this information sure creeped me out. 


Mary Mary Quite Contrary

If the last one wasn’t scary enough for you I would not worry as “Mary Mary Quite Contrary’s,” origin story is a whole lot bloodier. In fact, the ‘Mary,’ that this nursery rhyme is reference is Queen Mary I, also known as Bloody Mary. This English Queen was dubbed this lovely title after her infamous war against Protestantism and her subsequent executions of said Protestants. Allegedly, the garden referenced in the rhyme is the infamous garden where many of these murders took place. So, in a sense, this garden is her cemetery. So allegedly, the question of “how does your garden grow?” is actually a comment on the piling up of bodies of Protestants that she had killed. In a similar line of thought, the “silver bells,” and “cockle shells,” are interpreted to be a representation of the medieval torture devices that she often used on her victims. Finally, the line about the “pretty maids all in a row,” is reportedly a reference to how people would line up to be executed at the guillotine. I just find it funny that millions of parents are probably singing little rhymes that tell tales of death and murder without even realizing it.


Ring Around the Rosie

“Ring-a-round the rosie,

A pocket full of posies,

Ashes! Ashes!

We all fall down.”


The final nursery rhyme I will be talking about is Ring Around the Rosie. I feel that I played this game at almost literally every single camp I went to as a child. We would always form a circle during recess, hold hands, and go around as fast as we could and let go as soon as the rhyme ended. However, the origin story for this nursery rhyme is actually more sad and disturbing rather than scary. 

I believe there are many different versions of this nursery rhyme as in certain countries the lyrics differ slightly; however, but lyrics I put above are the ones that I heard the most often as a child. It is a common belief among the general public that “Ring Around the Rosie,” is about the “Black Death of 1347 or the Great Plague in 1665,”. Although some scholars disagree, I feel that that this theory is one of the most famous origin stories known by the general public. In fact, I remember my friend telling me about this in fourth grade. So how does this nursery rhyme relate to the black plague exactly? Well, first of all “ring-a-round a rosie,” as an alleged reference to one of the symptoms of the plague: a rosy red rash by the lymph nodes. Posies are a type of flower, and reportedly they were carried around by people at the time to ward off the smells of rotting flesh. The term “ashes,” refers to the ashes from burning bodies and “we all fall down,” refers to the massive amount of people becoming infected and shortly after killed by the plague. 

Overall, I find it odd that society tends to sing its kin to sleep at the sound of eerie nursery rhymes.


Lindsey is a Journalism Major at LMU. She enjoys reading and writing in her free time and she is very interested in travel, photography, and adventure.
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