This Christmas season, I wanted to take a look some of the stories behind a few of the treasured carols that we sing, year after year, to see if how these songs came to be (the songwriter within me was especially curious) could deepen the meaning of the words we sing earnestly in praise of our God and Savior, albeit at times maybe a little ritualistically due to changes, over many years, in the meaning and usage of certain words and different uses of punctuation.
Not to my surprise, a very small and subtle change in punctuation along with a couple of changes in the way certain words are used and understood nowadays (as opposed to how they were used and understood back when the song was written) actually does have a profound effect on the original intent of the words we sing to one of my personal favorites, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”.
Those of you who work with the written word quite a bit (Facebook and Twitter excluded, of course….lol) will not be surprised to find that something as trivial as moving a comma forward or backwards just one word, can change the meaning of a sentence considerably. Look at the sentence above. If I say, “moving a comma forward or backwards just one word, can change the meaning of a sentence…” or “by moving a comma forward or backwards, just one word can change the meaning of a sentence”, the meaning is quite different. One way suggests it is the comma that makes the difference, the other way points to “just one word” as the deciding factor. Simple, but profound, to say the least.
So it should not “rock the boat” too drastically to find that the first line of this classic carol has taken on a slightly different meaning over time from something as simple as moving the comma backwards one word…by moving the comma to before the word “merry”, instead of after it? Shouldn’t really make all that much of a difference, right?
Here is what Wikipedia has to say about this modernized version of the words:
The first recorded version is found in Three New Christmas Carols, dated c. 1760. Its first verse reads:
“God rest you merry, Gentlemen…let nothing you dismay…For Jesus Christ our Saviour was born upon this day….To save poor souls from Satan’s power…which long time had gone astray…which bring tidings of comfort and joy”
The transitive use of the verb “rest”, in the sense “to keep, cause to continue to remain” is typical of 16th to 17th century language (the phrase “rest you merry” is recorded in the 1540s). Etymonline.com notes that the first line “often is mis-punctuated” as “God rest you, merry gentlemen” because in contemporary language, rest has lost its use “with a predicate adjective following and qualifying the object” (Century Dictionary). This is the case already in the 1775 variant, and is also reflected by Dicken’s replacement of the verb rest by bless in his 1843 quote of the incipit as “God bless you, merry gentlemen”. The adjective merry in Early Modern English had a wider sense of “pleasant; bountiful, prosperous”. Some variants give the pronoun in the first line as ye instead of you, in a pseudo-archaism.
In the book, “Stories Behind The Best-Loved Songs Of Christmas” by Ace Collins, we learn that it might be a good idea to dig into how the usage of one of the key words of this incredible song has changed over the years, as well. The author aptly explains it this way:
When modern people today say “Merry” Christmas, the word merry means happy. When “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was written, merry had a very different meaning. Robin Hood’s “Merry Men” might have been happy, but the merry that described them meant great and mighty. Thus, in the Middle Ages, a strong army was a merry army, a great singer was a merry singer, and a mighty ruler was a merry ruler.
So when the English carolers of the Victorian era sang, “merry gentlemen,” they meant great or mighty men. Ye means you, but even when translated to “God rest you mighty gentlemen,” the song still makes very little sense. This is due to another word that has a much different meaning in today’s world and a lost punctuation mark.
The word rest in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” simply means keep or make. Yet to completely uncover the final key to solving this mystery of meaning, a comma needs to be placed after the word “merry.” Therefore, in modern English, the first line of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” should read “God make you mighty, gentlemen.” Using this translation, the old carol suddenly makes perfect sense.
We should probably stop and take a look at what these two changes could mean to the thrust of the words to this beautiful song we have sung for centuries. If we inject the original punctuation and the intent of words used at the time, we would go from “God rest ye, merry gentlemen” to “Go rest ye merry, gentlemen”. Well, now that does not seem to be much of a change, does it? But if we add in the original meaning of the words “rest” and “merry”, then it would reasonable to sing it the following way (not sure how it would flow, musically):
Ah, now I think it is beginning to make a bit more sense. The song is telling us “stay strong in our convictions and do not waver from the truth, because Christ has come to save us from our sins and nothing can separate us from His love.”
And we all respond in three part harmony…Aaaa-men!!!
Oh, before I forget, Ace Collins also talked about how, at the time this carol was written, the common folk of the church were not fond of the type of music that was being offered in the church. Yes, they would come and sing and worship together. But outside of the walls of the church, the common folk would often compose and sing their own songs of worship (not unlike the debate that we have had in our modern churches over the last fifty years or so). And yes, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was one of those folky hymns that found it’s way from outside of the church to becoming one of the most beloved hymns sung at Christmastime, all over the world.
How fitting is that? When God wants something to be heard, it will always find it’s way into the ears and hearts of those who need it most.
MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE…and
“May God keep you mighty”…always!!!
BE SAFE AND BLESSED