This is part 22 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” like “The First Noel” from yesterday is an old English folk song. The carol dates back to the 1500s or possibly even before. It is another anonymous writer who produced the hymn.
In the days “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” first came on the scene, the average church goer didn’t like church music. The lyrics were usually in Latin that the commoner didn’t understand and the tunes did nothing to get people excited. They might not have admitted it, but they really wanted something new. It showed in new music that appeared on the 16th century. One example beyond “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” where we can see this is in the work of Isaac Watts, writer of “Joy to the World” we have already discussed in this series.
Common folks would go to church and might even sing the Latin they did not understand. When they left the Church, they would sing and celebrate with their own music, music the clergy tried to avoid, but that the people loved. It was part of who they were. They might sing the songs of the Church but they would joyously dance to the songs that were their own.
Over time, the meaning of words evolved. In the carol, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” we find the words, With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call.” The word gay, in this carol is a synonym of the word happy or joyous. Today when we find the word in its most common use, there is an entirely different meaning. We can find other examples too.
In “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” the words “rest” and “merry” had different meanings in the 1500s than they have today. The word “rest meant to “keep” or “make.” The word “merry” meant “great” or “mighty.” When one referred to Robin Hood and his Merry Men, it meant Robin Hood and his great men, his mighty men. The word “Ye” translates to the word “You” today. Thus, the meaning of the first line of the carol would say, “God Keep You Mighty Gentlemen.” It would also seem that somewhere, over time, a comma was lost as well which would make the first line read, “God Keep You Mighty, Gentlemen.”
I do think it is important to note that not everyone agrees with this assessment. David Mikkelson, of Snopes.com fame says this story is false. On the other hand, Andrew Collins, a noted scholar in the area of hymns believes this assessment to be true. I tend to believe Collins. I would leave you to make your own assessment.
The hymn has been popular for many years. It was well known enough for Charles Dickens to refer to it in his Christmas Classic, A Christmas Carol in 1843. Dickens says, “God bless you merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.”
During the Victorian era the popularity of the carol continued among both Church of England Christians and English Christians from other Protestant faiths. As a result, as immigration happened into Europe and North America, this carol and other hymns popular among commoners were carried with them.
The earliest known copy of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was a broadsheet (a broadsheet was an inexpensive single sheet of paper used between the 16th and 19th centuries to record poetry and music) from 1760. The first time the tune appeared was in 1829.
The song continues to be one people still love to sing, perhaps 600 years or more from when English commoners first began to make it a part of their lives.
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.