Illustration by Beth

Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down!

There’s a preschool less than a block from my house. Sometimes, when I’m walking to work, I see the preschool kids out on their playground, their chubby legs in shorts, their baby-fine hair shining in the sun. “Ring Around the Rosie” is a huge favorite with these kids—their teacher helps them link hands and walk slowly in a circle, chanting the words until they all…fall…DOWN, shrieking with laughter.

Everyone knows “Ring Around the Rosie.” Even two-year-olds. It’s famous! And possibly maybe totally sinister.

People have been singing “Ring Around the Rosie” for hundreds of years, and while its exact origins are unknown, a popular explanation for this nursery song is that the words refer to the bubonic plague of 1655. Those who believe in this theory argue that a ringed, rosy rash was a symptom of the Plague. People carried posies with them to ward off the stench of dead bodies lining the streets. (A posy can also mean a small bouquet of any type of flower.) The line “ashes, ashes” is interchangeable, according to who taught you the song, with “A-tishoo! A-tishoo!” which has been interpreted as a sneeze, or one of the final you’re-gonna-die symptoms of the Plague. “Ashes, ashes” could refer to the mass burning of the bodies or the black color victims’ skin turned. And then: “We all fall down.” Yep, that’s what happened during the bubonic plague. What a lovely song for children.

Now, the people who really study these things say that the bubonic plague explanation is BS, that it’s all hootenanny and fiddlesticks. But if someone can come up with a better, more fitting, and more interesting explanation for this seemingly nonsensical song that was seemingly invented out of thin air…I’m all ears.

Because this wouldn’t be the first time a children’s rhyme, chant, or hand-clap game had its roots in something seriously creepy. Have you noticed? There are lots of playground chants that are truly messed up.

Childhood isn’t all cookies and teddy bears and straight-to-video Little Mermaid sequels. Childhood can be dark, and children are often fascinated by the creepy, the scary, the deliciously macabre. As kids, lots of us loved scaring ourselves silly with ghost stories and movies and grossing ourselves out with the most disgustingly gruesome things we could think of. In singing ghoulish songs, even if we don’t understand them when we’re little, we learn to deal with facts of life, such as death and pain.

Remember jumping rope to this?

Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Here we have an extremely popular jump-roping song about an accused (but aquitted!) axe murderer. Lizzie Borden was suspected of taking a hatchet to her sleeping parents in 1892. Although she was found not guilty, the circumstances surrounding the murders were extremely fishy, and the murders remain unsolved.

Why don’t we have nice jump-roping songs about birds and butterflies? Because they’re not as delightfully ghoulish. And really creepy lyrics are easy to remember—they tend to become engraved on our brains. (And then later, that mixture of remembered innocence and creepiness follows us into our adult lives, where movie directors make millions by putting chanting children in movies, mixing playground scenes with horror, or having kids sing innocent-sounding songs during the scary parts of movies! Yay for capitalizing on our youthful nightmares!)

Here’s another one you might remember:

My mother and your mother were washing clothes.
My mother punched your mother right in the nose.
What color was the blood?
Red, blue, yellow, green…

You jump to the colors and stop when you miss.

What?! Who thought it would be a good idea to jump rope to the colors of blood streaming out of your mother’s nose?

And what about the weirdness of grabbing a dandelion, placing your thumb at the base of the flower, and chanting, “Mama had a baby and her head popped off!” for no reason as you pop off the head of the dandelion?

Let’s face it: kids are strange. They utter strange, freaky things, not even understanding what they’re saying at the time. Other kids listen and copy, and BOOM—we have millions of adults wandering around, wondering: Where on earth did this come from? Whose mama had a baby and then proceeded to have her head pop off? Was it from the strain of pushing? What????

Here’s another mystery to ponder:

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All down her back, back, back
She asked her mother, mother, mother
For 50 cents, cents, cents
To see the elephants, elephants, elephants
Jump over the fence, fence, fence.

Who is Miss Mary Mack? Why is she dressed all in black? What kind of a dress has silver buttons all the way down just the back, and how come everyone knows this song, but no one seems to know where it comes from? I looked it up online. There is no one, known source for “Miss Mary Mack.” No one knows if she was a real person at all. And yet children have been singing about her for more than 100 years. The two reigning theories about the song are:

1. The first four lines are a riddle, the answer to which is “a coffin.” Eeesh.

2. Miss Mary Mack is a reference to the Merrimack, an ironclad ship built in 1855 that was black with silver rivets. It was burned in the harbor in Porthsmouth, Virginia, during the Civil War.

So, “Miss Mary Mack” is about either a coffin or a burning warship. Cute song for kids, don’t you think?

Last on our list, we have the horrible “Oranges and Lemons,” a British classic that familiarizes kids with the bells of famous churches around London.

“Oranges and Lemons” can be played as a game where children form a tunnel with their arms and catch one another running through the tunnel. But keep in mind that this is a nursery rhyme. A rhyme my mom used to sing to me. Before bed, folks.

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.

You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.

When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

There is no known explanation for the ending of this song. No one knows why the last two lines are like that.

What the hell, people. What the hell. ♦