“Green Grow the Rushes, O (alternatively “Ho” or “Oh”) (also known as “The Twelve Prophets”, “The Carol of the Twelve Numbers”, “The Teaching Song”, “The Dilly Song”, or “The Ten Commandments”), is an English folk song (Roud #133) popular across the English-speaking world. It is sometimes sung as a Christmas carol. It often takes the form of antiphon, where one voice calls and is answered by a chorus.
The song occurs in many variants, collected by musicologists including Sabine Baring-Gould and Cecil Sharp from the West of England at the start of the twentieth century. The stanzas are clearly much corrupted and often obscure, but the references are generally agreed to be both biblical and astronomical.
The twelve stanzas may be interpreted as follows:
“Twelve for the twelve Apostles”
“Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven”
These are the eleven Apostles who remained faithful (minus Judas Iscariot)
“Ten for the ten commandments”
“Nine for the nine bright shiners”
The nine may be an astronomical reference: the Sun, Moon and five planets known before 1781 yields seven and to this may be added the sphere of the fixed stars and the Empyrean…
“Eight for the April Rainers”
“Seven for the seven stars in the sky”
The seven are probably the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades star cluster.
“Six for the six proud walkers”
This may be a corruption of ‘six proud waters’, a reference to the six jars of water that Jesus turned into wine at the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee, (John 2:6).
“Five for the symbols at your door”
“Four for the Gospel makers”
“Three, three, the rivals”
“Two, two, the lily-white boys””Clothed all in green, Ho”
Many traditions hold that John the Baptist, like Jesus, was born without original sin, making them “the lily-white boys”. “the infant [John the Baptist] leaped in her [Elizabeth’s] womb” (Luke 1:41).
“One is one and all alone” (sometimes “One is one and one alone” or “One is one and stands alone”)
This appears to refer to God.”