“God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” is one of the earliest Christmas carols commonly sung today, dating from the 16th century or earlier. It was familiar in 1843 when Charles Dickens referred to it in “A Christmas Carol” when Ebeneezer Scrooge threatened a caroler for so joyfully singing it in the streets of London. The carol’s exact origin is unknown, but the first printing of it was found around 1760 on an old broadboard, a large sheet of paper used for announcements and proclamations. It was published in England in 1833 and appeared in “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern.” The arrangement generally in use today was first published in 1871 in “Christmas Carols New and Old” by Sir John Stainer.
The carol has lost its original meaning over the centuries as times and meanings of words have changed. The comma in the opening line is often misplaced or omitted. Hymn historians agree that the line originally read, “God rest you merry, gentlemen.” When it was written, the word “rest” did not mean “sleep” or “be still,” but meant “to keep,” and the word “merry” actually meant “mighty.” Today’s language would read, “God keep you mighty, gentlemen.” One in a war against Satan is strengthened while remembering the birth of Christ and why he came to earth. There’s joy in knowing promised deliverance from the power of the enemy.
The unknown author of this carol knew well the story of Jesus’ birth. The middle stanzas closely follow the narrative of the Nativity as recorded in Luke 2. The last stanza tells us to sing praises to the Lord and to spread the good news, just as the shepherds were told by the angels.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. (Luke 2:10)
This is one of the few Christmas carols written in a minor key. Many assume that the minor tonality suggests a somber or serious mood. While that may be so, it also expresses a feeling of strength and joy. The word “carol” came from the French “carole,” meaning a song of joyful character. The melody, most likely based on a folk dance, is sung at a fairly quick tempo to make it an uplifting carol. The villages of that day were guarded by night watchmen who would sing to help pass the time, and historians believe this carol was sung then. As they sang of “tidings of comfort and joy,” they may very well have been the first Christmas carolers.
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