I’ve been asked to explain “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman.” Or, specifically, the confusing words. It is, as the requester suggests, a comma issue. The song is saying to the gentlemen, “God Rest You Merry,” or as we would say, “May God keep you happy.” Maybe we wouldn’t say that, but we would at least understand it. Nowadays, we tend to punctuate it as “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen,” and understand it to mean, “May God help you relax,” directed toward some Merry Gentlemen.
This is a confusion not unlike that found with “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” where we understand “Rejoice, rejoice, O Israel!” as “Rejoice! Rejoice! O Israel…” and then descend into confusion. Or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” in which “herald” describes the angels, when we think it is “Hark the Herald! Angels sing.”
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” started turning up in hymnals in the mid-1800s, but it seems to be essentially an English folk song, the first English song I’ve brought you this year. As is the way of folk songs, the words change around a bit. “This holy tide of Christmas all others doth efface,” one of the links here gives you, while the other gives you “deface” instead. “Efface” makes more sense to me. Nowadays, we often sing it, “The holy tide of Christmas is coming on apace,” which helps a little bit, but only for people who know that “tide” means “time” and “apace” means “quickly.”
A 1548 dictionary defines “mery” thus: “Aye, bee thou gladde: or joyfull, as the vulgare people saie Reste you mery.” Possibly something like, “Don’t worry; be happy.”
The “gentlemen” part is just a red herring. Since no one nowadays would direct a song to gentlemen, it makes us more likely to imagine that it is being sung to some group known as the “Merry Gentlemen.” I read a news report that a church somewhere in Cardiff (Wales) has replaced “gentlemen”with “persons,” but I don’t believe it. I think that anyone who was trying to fix that problem would go with “Christians,” that being the more common solution to gender issues in hymns.The presence of the word “Jewry,” which is meaningless to most of us but doesn’t sound nice, is probably more of an issue, and may cause that verse to be left out. At that time, it meant the part of a town where Jewish people lived, that being a rather segregated time in history.
There have been attempts to add a new verse:
“Alternatives’ verse to “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,” by Cynthia A.
Douglas, doesn’t mince words, either.
Here’s the old:
God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay.
For Jesus Christ, our savior,
Was born upon this day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray.
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy . . .
Here’s the new:
Now he is come to all the world,
This lesson to impart
If we’re to show his love there must
Be action on our part
To feed the poor, protect the weak,
Show kindness from the heart,
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy . . .”
I doubt that the first verse is actually left out, and see nothing wrong with adding a reminder, though I would prefer that new verses remain more in keeping, linguistically, with the old ones.
Here’s the sheet music with midi, because this is a good song to sing with friends and family gathered around the piano in the parlor. It’s a ballad, which means that it tells a story. That is why it has so many verses.
This is a good song, with very nice traditional harmonies, but it is also well-suited to raucous shouting, which makes it good for caroling through the streets or in the car or at parties.
I was at a party last night, working, and it was a fun one. I packed up my gear and left around 9:30, when there was talk of playing games, though I might have stayed had there been caroling. Today I will be up at the store. I think I will take a CD of the King’s College singers singing traditional carols. I may sing along on “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” If there aren’t too many customers around.