December 1, 2023

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Scary Halloween? Or Just Ordinary Nursery Rhymes?

by Maggie Van Ostrand

When we tuck our children into bed at night and tell them fairy tales and nursery rhymes, we intend them to nod off peacefully and have pleasant dreams. But how pleasant can their dreams be when their sleepy little heads are filled not with visions of sugar plums but with fear, violence and death?

Their little heads are destined to be filled with the same images as ours were: blind mice who run but can't escape having their tails amputated with a carving knife; a boy who kisses girls and makes them cry; an old woman living in a shoe who whips her hungry children for no reason; babies rocking in cradles and falling down when branches break; Solomon Grundy, born on Monday is dead by the end of the week; Tom, the Piper's son, steals pigs; scary spiders frighten little girls on tuffets; Humpty Dumpty falls off a wall and can never be fixed; and monkeys who catch weasels and pop them. How did this carnage begin?

Some of these tales have been around for a very long time and generally date from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries as one of England's most enduring forms of oral culture. Apparently most nursery rhymes were originally composed for adult entertainment, originating as popular ballads and songs.

The earliest known published collection of nursery rhymes was Tommy Thumb's (Pretty) Song Book (London, 1744). It included "Little Tom Tucker," "Sing a Song of Sixpence," and "Who Killed Cock Robin?" The most influential was "Mother Goose's Melody: Sonnets for the Cradle," published by John Newberry in 1781. Among its 51 rhymes were "Jack and Jill," "Ding Dong Bell," and "Hush-a-bye baby on the tree top."


Hush-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.




According to Vikki Harris' "The Origin of Nursery Rhymes & Mother Goose" (1997), regardless of their malevolent words, the nursery rhymes that were popular years ago, and still are today, can be placed into three categories. First are the lullabies, the songs and melodies with which most of us are familiar. These were far from soothing but rather are said to have been sung in order to intimidate the child and/or used as an outlet for the emotions of the parent or nurse:


Bye, baby bunting,

Daddy's gone a-hunting,

Gone to get a rabbit skin

To wrap the baby bunting in.


Bye, baby bumpkin

Where's Tony Lumpkin

My lady's on her death-bed,

With eating half a pumpkin.



A second reason for the development of nursery rhymes was as infant amusement. Counting rhymes, and alphabet rhymes fit into this category, and are generally non-violent.


One, two, three, four, five,

Once I caught a fish alive,

Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,

Then I let him go again.


Here's A, B, C, D, E, F, and G,

H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V,

W, X, Y, and Z-

And O, dear me,

When shall I learn

My A, B, C?



Tickle games were readily used for the amusement of infants and toddlers. Perhaps the two best known are:


Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man,

Bake me a cake as fast as you can;

Pat it and prick it, and mark it with B,

And put it in the oven for baby and me


This little piggy went to market,

This little piggy stayed home,

This little piggy had roast beef,

This little piggy had none,

And this little piggy cried,

Wee, wee, wee

All the way home.



"It is also possible that the credit of preservation should go to the nursery itself," explains Henry Bett in "Nursery Rhymes and Tales - Their Origin and History (1968) "We owe the preservation of our nursery rhymes and nursery tales from remote ages to the astonishing persistence of popular tradition, reinforced by the characteristic conservatism of childhood which insists on having rhymes repeated the same way each time."

In the circle game Ring-around-the-rosie, links have been made to the Great Plague of London and Edinburgh. The lines "Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down" or "Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush! We've all tumbled down" is referring to the death of the people.


Ring-a-round a rosie,

A pocket full of posies,

Ashes! Ashes!

We all fall down.


Three blind mice

Three blind mice,

See how they run!

They all ran after a farmer's wife,

Who cut off their tails with a carving knife.

Did you ever see such a sight in your life,

As three blind mice?


All around the mulberry bush

The monkey chased the weasel.

The monkey thought 'twas all in fun.

Pop! goes the weasel.


Georgie Porgie, puddin' and pie,

Kissed the girls and made them cry.

When the boys came out to play,

Georgie Porgie ran away.

(This rhyme refers to the amorous and amoral Prince Regent who became George IV during Regency times in England)


Jack and Jill

Went up the hill

To fetch a pail of water.

Jack fell down

And broke his crown

And Jill came tumbling after.


Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet,

Eating her curds and whey;

Along came a spider,

Who sat down beside her

And frightened Miss Muffet away.


If you carefully reread Hansel and Gretel, you may never again repeat it to your children:


Hard by a great forest dwelt a poor wood-cutter with his wife and his two children. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel. He had little to bite and to break, and once when great dearth fell on the land, he could no longer procure even daily bread. Now when he thought over this by night in his bed, and tossed about in his anxiety, he groaned and said to his wife, what is to become of us. How are we to feed our poor children, when we no longer have anything even for ourselves. I'll tell you what, husband, answered the woman, early to-morrow morning we will take the children out into the forest to where it is the thickest.

There we will light a fire for them, and give each of them one more piece of bread, and then we will go to our work and leave them alone. They will not find the way home again, and we shall be rid of them. No, wife, said the man, I will not do that. How can I bear to leave my children alone in the forest. The wild animals would soon come and tear them to pieces. O' you fool, said she, then we must all four die of hunger, you may as well plane the planks for our coffins, and she left him no peace until he consented. But I feel very sorry for the poor children, all the same, said the man.

The two children had also not been able to sleep for hunger, and had heard what their step-mother had said to their father. Gretel wept bitter tears, and said to Hansel, now all is over with us.



In "The Truth Behind Goldilocks," Mental Floss - Volume 2, Richard Zachs writes that we are reading watered-down versions of the fairy tales and that the originals were far more graphic and brutal.

In the earliest known version (1831) of Goldilocks, discovered in Toronto, the author, one Eleanor Mure, a 32-year-old maiden aunt, created "The Story of The Three Bears" for her nephew, Horace Broke.

The original "Goldilocks" was an "angry old woman" who breaks into the bears' house because they snubbed her during a recent social call. Once the three bears catch the old woman, they try to figure out what to do with her. Here's what they came up with:


On the fire they throw her, but burn her they couldn't;

In the water they put her, but drown there she wouldn't;

They seize her before all the wondering People,

And chuck her aloft on St. Paul's churchyard steeple;

And if she's still there, when you earnestly look,

You will see her quite plainly -- my dear Little Horbook!


No other version has Goldilocks impaled on a church steeple. The grayhaired old lady didn't become a goldenhaired young girl until 1918.


Some believe Cock Robin referred to the death of Robin Hood, the legendary hero who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Robin Hood's many friends are well represented in the poem, as creatures eager to help. Another theory (Damon Kingshott) speculates that the poem refers to 18th Century English Prime Minister Robert Walpole.


Who killed Cock Robin poem

"Who killed Cock Robin?" "I," said the Sparrow,

"With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin."

"Who saw him die?" "I," said the Fly,

"With my little eye, I saw him die."

"Who caught his blood?" "I," said the Fish,

"With my little dish, I caught his blood."

"Who'll make the shroud?" "I," said the Beetle,

"With my thread and needle, I'll make the shroud."

"Who'll dig his grave?" "I," said the Owl,

"With my pick and shovel, I'll dig his grave."

"Who'll be the parson?" "I," said the Rook,

"With my little book, I'll be the parson."

"Who'll be the clerk?" "I," said the Lark,

"If it's not in the dark, I'll be the clerk."

"Who'll carry the link?" "I," said the Linnet,

"I'll fetch it in a minute, I'll carry the link."

"Who'll be chief mourner?" "I," said the Dove,

"I mourn for my love, I'll be chief mourner."

"Who'll carry the coffin?" "I," said the Kite,

"If it's not through the night, I'll carry the coffin."

"Who'll bear the pall? "We," said the Wren,

"Both the cock and the hen, we'll bear the pall."

"Who'll sing a psalm?" "I," said the Thrush,

"As she sat on a bush, I'll sing a psalm."

"Who'll toll the bell?" "I," said the bull,

"Because I can pull, I'll toll the bell."

All the birds of the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,

When they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin.



The tales which we so fondly recall from our childhood will be passed on to our children and produce yet another generation of nursery lore and gore.

Who killed Cock Robin? I did Mommy. It was fun.


©2013 Maggie Van Ostrand, all rights reserved.