Wednesday, December 2, 2009

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen: Do You Know What You're Singing?

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!


Andrew R said...

Wow! Thanks for this, Louis. Now I'll sing lots of Christmas songs differently:

"Have a very Merry Christmas, it's the best time of the year..."
"We Wish you a Merry Christmas"
etc. etc.

Gray Rinehart said...

I advise you to check a more authoritative source about the meaning of the word "merry" -- viz., a dictionary. "Mighty" is not listed as even an archaic meaning. Same with "rest," which even back in the 12th century meant "rest."

Remember where the comma is, too: it's "God rest you merry, gentlemen," not "God rest you, merry gentlemen." So the phrase in question is "rest you merry," which is really closer in connotation to "comfort and joy" than it ever would be to being made strong or mighty.

God grant you comfort and joy, gentlemen (and ladies).

Batreader said...

The other thing you need to note is that in the old English that this was written the sense is not of 'God gives rest to merry men' but 'God give you merry rest to men'. If you insert a comma after merry in the original you'll get the sense of it - 'God rest ye merry, gentlemen'

Anonymous said...

I was once told that this was a hymn of protest against Oliver Cromwell's banning of Christmas as a pagan holiday (Yule) that had defiled Christianity. which needed to be purified, and that is was sung outside places where people were imprisoned for celebrating Christmas.

Some of the lyrics fit this explanation - "let nothing you dismay, remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas day" - "now to the Lord sing praises, all you within this place" - "this holy tide of Christmas all others does deface."

Is there any evidence that anybody knows about to support this explanation?