God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen (also known as God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen) is an English traditional Christmas carol. The melody is in a minor key and is in common time or cut time. Published by William B. Sandys in 1833, the lyrics of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen are traditional olde English and are reputed to date back to the 15th century, although the author is unknown.
"Like so many early Christmas songs, this carol was written as a direct reaction to the music of the fifteenth century church," writes Ace Collins, in Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. However, in the as-yet earliest known publication of the carol on a circa 1760 broadsheet, it is described as a "new Christmas carol," suggesting its origin is actually in the mid-18th century. It appeared again among "new carols for Christmas" in another 18th-century source, a chapbook believed to be printed between 1780-1800. In 1833 it appeared in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, a collection of seasonal carols gathered by William B. Sandys. The author is unknown.
It is referred to in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, 1843: "...at the first sound of — "God bless you merry, gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!"— Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost."
This carol also is featured in the second movement of the Carol Symphony by Victor Hely-Hutchinson.
There is some confusion today about the meaning of the first line, which seems archaic to our ears. It is usually given today as "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen", with a comma after the word "merry", so does not refer to "merry gentlemen". "Rest" here denotes "keep or make." The claim that "merry" once meant "mighty," and is so used here is not supported by the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives sixteen definitions of the word, some going back to the tenth century, all having to do with pleasure or enjoyment. In both of the 18th-century instances, "you" was used instead of "ye," suggesting that the latter may be a modern insertion to make the carol sound more quaintly archaic.
The carol exists in a wide variety of versions, some with differing numbers of verses. No attempt is made here to detail the variants; rather the reader is referred to the Hymns and Carols of Christmas analysis of a nine-verse version. However, for historical comparison, the first verses of the earliest-known versions are given below.
Circa 1760 (from "Three New Christmas Carols," Printed and Sold at the Printing-Office on Bow Church-Yard, London):
God rest on [sic] merry, Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this Day.
To save poor souls from Satan's power,
Which long time had gone astray.
Which brings tidings of comfort and joy.
Circa 1780-1800 (from "Three new carols for Christmas," Wolverhampton, printed by J. Smart):
[Punctuation reproduced from the original--in this instance there is no comma after "merry."]
God rest you merry Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay;
Remember Christ our Saviour,
Was born on Christmas-day;
To save our souls from Satan's power,
Which long time had gone astray:
This brings Tydings of Comfort and Joy.
In the UK, the de facto baseline reference version is that adopted by Carols for Choirs, OUP, (1961):
1. God rest you1 merry, gentlemen,
2. In Bethlehem, in Israel,:2
- Let nothing you dismay,
- For Jesus Christ our Saviour
- Was born upon this day,
- To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray:
- O tidings of comfort and joy,
- comfort and joy,
- O tidings of comfort and joy.
3.From God our heavenly Father
- This blessèd Babe was born,
- And laid within a manger
- Upon this blessèd morn,
- The which His Mother Mary
Did nothing take in scorn:
- O tidings ...
4. The shepherds at those tidings
- A blessèd angel came,
- And unto certain shepherds
- Brought tidings of the same,
- How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by name:
- O tidings ...
5. But when to Bethlehem they came,
- Rejoicèd much in mind,
- And left their flocks a-feeding
- In tempest, storm and wind,
- And went to Bethlehem straightway,
This blessèd Babe to find:
- O tidings ...
6. Now to the Lord sing praises,
- Whereat this Infant lay,
- They found Him in a manger,
- Where oxen feed on hay;
- His mother Mary kneeling,
Unto the Lord did pray:
- O tidings ...
- All you within this place,
- And with true love and brotherhood
- Each other now embrace;
- This holy tide of Christmas
All others doth deface:3
- O tidings ...
– Carols for Choirs
1The form is "you", object of "rest" and not "ye" which is the archaic subject pronoun. "Ye" was not used in the earliest instances of the carol.
2Some renditions would substitute "Israel" with the word "Jewry".
3The carol's use of deface is now archaic, to be understood not as spoil or vandalise but as efface (outshine, eclipse). Many subsequent versions, such as the New English Hymnal of 1986, make this substitution.
Tom Lehrer, in his song "A Christmas Carol," included the line "God rest ye merry, merchants, may ye make the Yuletide pay..."
Allan Sherman used a parody in "Shticks and Stones" in his album My Son, the Folk Singer:
God bless you, Jerry Mandlebaum, may nothing you dismay;
Dis May you had a rotten month, so what is there to say?
Let's hope next May is better and good things will come your way
And you won't have a feeling of dismay next May...
During World War II, British schoolchildren commonly paraphrased the song as "God Rest Ye Jerry Mental Men", with 'Jerry' being a slang term for the German enemy, and 'Mental Men' implying stupidity.
A Christmas episode List of All Creatures Great and Small episodes#Series 2 of All Creatures Great and Small was titled Merry Gentlemen, in ironic reference to Siegfried urging his colleagues to sing the song correctly, with a pause between "Merry" and "Gentlemen".
Angela Chang (Zhāng Shàohán 张韶涵), a Taiwanese pop singer, uses the melody for "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" in the chorus of her song "[Parable (寓言 Yùyán)".
^ Carols.org God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen lyrics
^ "Three new Christmas carols." [London], [1760?]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale.
^ "Three new carols for Christmas. 1. God rest you merry gentlemen, &c. 2. Good Christian people pray give ear. 3. Let all good Christian people here." Wolverhampton, [between ca. 1780 and 1800?]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale.
The New Oxford Book of Carols, ed. Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 527
Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, Ace Collins (Zondervan, 2001).