GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN written in 1760
This Christmas carol is one of the oldest extant carols, dated to the 16th century or earlier. The earliest known printed edition of the carol is in a broadsheet dated to c. 1760. It was first published in 1827, but even then it was introduced as “an ancient carol, sung in the streets of London.” In fact, old London had municipal watchmen who were licensed to perform certain tasks, including the singing of Christmas carols. This carol was one of their songs.
What Americans hear when they listen to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is not anything like what the English peasants meant when they first sang this song more than 500 years ago.
Like so many early Christmas songs, this carol was written as a direct reaction to the music of the 15th Century Church. During this period, the songs of organized religion were usually written in Latin and their melodies were somber and dark, offering singers and listeners little inspiration or joy. In fact, though few admitted it in public, most church members secretly disliked the accepted religious songs of the day. So, while they continued to go to worship, they created their own church music outside the walls of the cathedrals and chapels. In this way, the peasant class led a quiet rebellion against the tone of religious music by writing religious folks songs that were light, lively and penned in common language. Their Christmas folk songs became the foundation of what are now knows as Christmas carols.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was the most famous and most loved of all the early carols. Written with an upbeat melody and speaking of the birth of Jesus in joyful terms, the song may have shocked early church leaders, but it charmed their flocks. Not only did they sing to this carol, they danced to it.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’s” lyrics reveal that the song’s unknown writer knew the story of Jesus’ birth well. He included the high points of the gospel throughout the carol’s verses. The writer also fully understood the power of Christ and what His arrival meant to all who embraced it. Though it might have been rejected by the church leaders, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” better presented the message of the first Christmas and the life of Jesus than did many of the songs used in formal worship of the day.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was sung for hundreds of years before it was finally published in the nineteenth century. By that time—thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s love of carols—the song found favor in the Anglican Church. Soon, even the protestant English clergy of the Victorian era were enthusiastically teaching “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” to their parishioners. Crossing the ocean to both Europe and America, the carol became a favorite throughout the Christian world and it is still sung in much the same way as it was 500 years ago. The only problem is that few of today’s singers fully understand the beginning of each of the carol’s many verses. This is a result of the evolution of the English language.
When modern people say “Merry” Christmas, the word merry means ‘happy’. When “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” was written, merry had a very different meaning. Robin Hood’s “Merry Men” might have been happy, but the merry that described them meant ‘great’ and ‘mighty’. In the Middle Ages, a strong army was a merry army, a great singer was a merry singer, and a mighty ruler was a merry ruler.
So when the English carolers of the Victorian era sang, “merry gentlemen,” they meant ‘great or mighty men’. “Ye” means ‘you’, but even when translated to “God rest you mighty gentlemen,” the song still makes very little sense. This is due to another word that has a much different meaning in today’s world… and a lost punctuation mark.
The word “rest” in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” simply means ‘keep’ or ‘make’. Yet, to completely uncover the final key to solving this mystery of meaning, a comma needs to be placed after the word “merry.” So, in modern English, the first line of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” should read “God make you mighty, gentlemen.” Using this translation, the old carol suddenly makes perfect sense, as does the most common saying of the holidays, “Merry Christmas.”
You might wonder why, when most didn’t fully understand the real meaning of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the old carol remained popular. The world’s love for this song is probably due to its upbeat musical piece paired with the telling of the most upbeat story the world has ever known. Those who sing it naturally get caught up in the celebratory mood of the message and embrace the same kind of emotions that those first to visit the baby Jesus must have felt.
Read this Christmas carol, and – today – rest in the joy that comes with the Christmas season.
God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,
for Jesus Christ, our Savior, was born on Christmas Day;
to save us all from Satan’s powers when we were gone astray…
Glad tidings of comfort and joy… comfort and joy!
Glad tidings of comfort and joy!
In Bethlehem, in Israel, this blessed Babe was born,
and laid within a manger upon this blessed morn;
the which His Mother Mary did nothing take in scorn… (CHORUS)
From God our Heavenly Father a blessed angel came,
and unto certain shepherds brought tidings of the same;
how that in Bethlehem was born the Son of God by name… (CHORUS)
“Fear not then”, said the angel, “let nothing you affright;
this day is born a Savior of a pure virgin bright
to free all those who trust in Him from Satan’s power and might!” (CHORUS)
Now, to the Lord sing praises, all you within this place,
and with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace
this holy tide of Christmas all other doth deface… (CHORUS)