For all these many years I've been singing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" without giving too much thought to what this particular phrase meant. I suppose if asked I would have said God was giving rest to some happy fellows and encouraging them not to dismay (the next line says "let nothing you dismay.") Was I ever wrong!
I recently read a bit of history on this carol from Ace Collins' book 25 Days, 26 Ways to Make This Your Best Christmas Ever (see chapter/day 3). The carol was written in the Middle Ages by an unknown peasant. The two important words are "rest" and "merry." The words in the historical context take on very different meanings from what we know today. Collins explains, "During ancient times the English meaning for the word rest went well beyond the meaning we attribute to it today. The word also meant "make" or "keep." Thus, when "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" was written, the composer's charge was for listeners to let God make a change in their hearts and minds about the good news found in Christ's birth and life." (27)
Then we come to the word "merry." This was an even bigger surprise. While it could mean "happy" it "was also often employed in place of the word mighty. Robin Hood's companions were known as his Merry Men, but that didn't mean this famous band of warriors was happy; they were powerful. . .When Great Britain was called "Merry Old England," it was the most powerful nation in the world. 'Eat, drink, and be merry' really meant that well-fed troops would always be ready for battle. Thus when taken in context, the new meaning of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" becomes "God keep you mighty, gentlemen.'" (28)
I've found the same idea found elsewhere (for those who want two or more witnesses). So next time you sing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" you'll sing it with new meaning and, I suspect, with a little extra boldness. For now, have a mighty Christmas!