Posted by: rcottrill | January 20, 2012

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

Words: Unknown author
Music: Unknown composer

Wordwise Hymns (none)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: The author of this carol is unknown. It may have originated some five centuries ago. The song was published by William B. Sandys (pronounced Sands), an English solicitor, in his 1833 volume, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern. Sandys’ book contributed to the mid-Victorian revival of the Christmas holiday, and the practice of singing carols, of which Queen Victoria herself was an enthusiastic supporter. The traditional tune is excellent, and it apparently originated in Cornwall, although we don’t know the composer.

There are several things to say about the lyrics of this carol. What is given in the Cyber Hymnal seems to be a mix of Sandys’ version, and that which became traditional in London in the mid-1870’s. The former version had seven stanzas, the latter had eight. Of these, most today use only CH-1, 3, 4, and 7.

It is difficult to find a definitive or original version of this carol, as many alterations have been made over the years. I have made slight changes of my own in what is posted on the Cyber Hymnal. For example, I’ve never liked the use of “deface” in CH-7:

This holy tide of Christmas
All others doth deface.

To “deface” means to disfigure, as graffiti mars a wall. Surely the intended meaning is, as some modern editors have it, “efface,” meaning to eclipse, as the glory of Christmas overshadows other festive times.

The opening line has frequently suffered from the careless removal of the comma after “merry.” The text does not refer to merry gentlemen, as though it were telling some giddy revelers to have a nice holiday. Nor is the word “rest” used as we would do, today. Five centuries ago it meant make, or keep. A modern paraphrase of the words might read: “May God keep you joyful, gentlemen. May He fill your hearts with gladness!”

This sentiment perfectly reflects the message of the angel on that first Christmas night: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy” (Lk. 2:10). And the reason for great rejoicing follows: “For there is born to you…a Saviour” (vs. 11). One “to save us all from Satan’s power,” as the carol puts it (CH-1), and, “To free all those who trust in Him from Satan’s power and might,” (CH-4; cf. Heb. 2:14-15).

Various Scriptures, both prophetic and reflecting on the event afterward, have this note of joyful celebration in the “glad tidings” delivered by the angels.

“O Zion, you who bring good tidings, get up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, you who bring good tidings, lift up your voice with strength, lift it up, be not afraid; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” (Isa. 40:9).

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound (Isa. 61:1; cf. Lk. 4:16-21).

“And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!’” (Rom. 10:15).

In the words of John, in the incarnation “the Word [God the Son] became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). Truly, “this holy tide of Christmas all others doth efface.”

CH-1) God rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas 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.

1) In your view, what is the essence of Christmas?

2) Though many of modern Christmas traditions and fantasies are not wrong in themselves, they have tended to obscure the true meaning of the day? How have you and your family dealt with all the extras that have been added to the holiday?

Wordwise Hymns (none)
The Cyber Hymnal


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