Songs of Christmas – God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen


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 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.


Spirita Spiro (Esperanza for "Spirit's Breath) is rather new in my life. But the blog is not. I began writing a blog several years ago. It lived under the title, "The Pastor Ponders." Over the years I have tried several different names and "The Pastor Ponders" always seemed to fit best. I am trying again with Spirita Spiro. For 27 years I was a full-time pastor in the United Methodist Church. This year, August 2018, I semi-retired (I can't actually retire quite yet) and began teaching social studies. It is something I have always wanted to do and if I was going to do this, I needed to make it sooner rather than later. So, I made the move. I thought with the career change there also needed to be a name change to the blog and other things, such as spiritual direction. Spirita Spiro is my attempt to share some of my thoughts. I often share what I am thinking with my dog "Bishop," but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He will even go to sleep sometimes while I am sharing my thoughts with him. The truth is, if it doesn't involve getting his ears scratched, his belly rubbed or some kind of treat, he really doesn't care. I will say this for him, he never argues with me or tells me I am wrong. So, I decided to share some of my thoughts with whoever might come across this blog in their ramblings around the Internet. I live with my wife Cindy and our little dog in Lufkin, Texas. I spent the past 27 years as a full-time United Methodist pastor. Most recently I served as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Sweeny, Texas. I have also served United Methodist congregations throughout East Texas including rural Madison County (Elwood UMC), Lovelady (First UMC) and Kennard (Center Hill UMC), Canton (First UMC), rural Smith County (Mt. Sylvan UMC and Union Chapel UMC), Grapeland (First UMC), Tyler (Pleasant Retreat UMC), Santa Fe (Aldersgate UMC), Freeport (First UMC) and Oyster Creek (Oyster Creek UMC), Diboll (First UMC), and now Sweeny (First UMC). My wife Cindy and I have been married for over 40 years. We have two grown sons. Wayne and his wife Nikki and all our grandsons (Kaleb, Noah, and Jaxon) live in Southern California. Christopher and his wife Morgan and both our granddaughters (Jenna and Natalie) live in Tyler Texas. I enjoy preaching and all aspects of preaching from research to writing to the actual preaching event. I also love writing, reading, playing the guitar as well as a bit of drawing. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past two years working with paracord on various projects, mostly prayer ropes I usually give away. I sing bass with a local barbershop chorus called The Coastalaires. I have also recently begun doing a little wood carving. I also enjoy playing with Bishop, something he likes a great deal better than listening to my thoughts. I hold an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Business Data Processing, specializing in Microcomputers from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in History from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and a Doctor of Ministry from Carolina University of Theology. When I was a student at Carolina, the school was in Iron Station North Carolina. They have since relocated to Manassas Virginia (Yeah, go figure, a school named Carolina geographically in Virginia). This blog is mostly devotional writing, but there are other things here too. Just about every week I will either post my sermon manuscript or a video of the worship service. On occasion, I will post something I see in society. Occasionally I write a short story, a poem, or a song and will post it here too. I will say this, my motivations for writing this blog are really selfish. I write it to get what I am thinking out of my head and onto something a bit more permanent. They say, after all, once something is on the internet it never really goes away. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it. And, should you desire, you can one-up Bishop and actually tell me what you think. Who knows, it might generate a bit of discussion between you and me and anyone else who might make their way here. With Joy and Thankfulness, Keith Sweeny, Texas May 2018

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