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Every year I try to add another primer Christmas carol to my website, and this year is no exception. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen seems to have gone out of favor nowadays. However, students like to sing and play it because of the minor sound, yet cherry, upbeat tempo. That’s after I teach it to them because no one knows it. But once they can play it they love it. It certainly was one of my favorites as a child!
This carol was published in the 1700’s, but according to what I have read, it was around a few centuries earlier. No one knows who wrote the words or the music. There were no copyright laws back then!
As usual when I start looking for the history of old music, I found some interesting facts I didn’t know about this carol.
Since the words are so old, the meaning of the text is not the same today as it was back then. The word rest in the pre-1800 times did not mean to take a little break. It meant, according to Wikipedia, “to keep, or cause to continue to remain.” The word merry meant “pleasant; bountiful, prosperous.”
With that in mind, I interpret the words to mean that God will help keep them pleasant and prosperous. By extension, if the gentlemen are prosperous and pleasant, the entire household will be the same. If you sing the words with that in mind, it really changes the meaning of the first line.
Also, there was another thing I read on Wikipedia. I grew up singing God rest YE merry gentlemen. But, if what I read is correct, ye was not in even the oldest versions of the written lyrics. Evidently not only is it incorrect grammar for the word ye, its usage is not even original to the lyrics, but dates a few hundred years after the carol was first sung. So I should have used God rest YOU merry gentlemen, but that would mean doing everything over which I don’t have time for.
Finally, in some current books, the words of this carol have been modified to fit our modern sensibilities and use of language. Some versions print the lyrics as God Rest You Merry Christians, or God Rest You Merry People All.