“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” one of the favorite Christmas carols in the English-speaking world, may also be one of the least understood. William Sandys included it in his Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern in 1833. That marks its first publication, but the carol itself may have already four centuries old.
It is not at all clear whether any oral tradition of singing the carol survived until Sandys’ publication, but it certainly became immediately popular. Ten years later, Charles Dickens referred to it in A Christmas Carol: “…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.”
Of the words in the title, modern English retains the original meaning only of “God.” It no longer has separate second person singular and plural, but we can recognize “ye” as the plural “you” easily enough.
Notice that “rest” is a transitive verb, with “ye” or “you” as its direct object. It has nothing to do with ease, repose, or taking time off from activity. In earlier English, it had the meaning of “keep” or “cause to be.”
“Merry” did not mean “jolly.” It meant mighty, strong, or great. “Gentlemen” did not mean men with good manners. Gentlemen were the lowest rank of the gentry, or ruling classes. They were landed aristocracy, although very likely descended from some baron’s youngest son.
A lot of the online sources of information about “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” ultimately come from Stories behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins. I have had to take his word for the old meanings of “rest” and “merry” because my public library does not offer online access to the Oxford English Dictionary. I only hope that he looked up the words there, because not much of what he wrote could possibly be correct. In fact, he doesn’t explain “gentlemen” at all.
The meaning of the first line is therefore something like “God keep you (or make you) aristocrats great.” The real meaning of the first verse comes with the line “remember Christ, our savior, was born on Christmas day.” Regardless, therefore of social class or distinction, the divine power shown in that miraculous birth far outweighs anything that could disturb or dismay any of us.
William Sandys was an antiquarian, seeking to bring the ancient past alive for his contemporaries. Later scholarly publication would have required printing old texts with spelling and grammar untouched.
Sandys’ book is long out of print, and I have found no modern publication that either describes it or provides a facsimile, but the text as it stands shows little resemblance to 15th century English. (Think Chaucer.) Yet every description of the carol I have seen traces its origin to the 15th century.
Collins writes, “this carol was written as a direct reaction to the music of the 15th Century Church. During this period, the songs of organized religion were usually written in Latin and their melodies were somber and dark, offering singers and listeners little inspiration or joy.”
Nonsense. First of all, singer/priests wrote all the “songs of organized religion” and certainly enjoyed singing them. John Dunstable was a leading English composer of the time. Contemporary descriptions and modern recordings of his music are easy enough to find. Somber and dark indeed.
Second, secular music of the time was rarely written down unless written by the same composers who produced the church music. No one else knew how to read and write musical notation.
Collins goes on to mention peasants, but peasant churches never had choirs. Peasants surely never heard or knew anything about the music of the large churches the aristocracy attended.
Assuming that the words and music indeed originated in the 15th century, the words themselves would have been written down. If Sandys provided the first publication, it means he found the text in manuscript.
The music for “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” would have been devised in rehearsal by musically illiterate minstrels and memorized. Think the Beatles and other modern popular groups, but without access to a recording studio. “Musically illiterate” does not mean musically inept, just unable to read and write musical notation.
Medieval minstrels represented a wide range of musical talent and social respectability. Let’s forget about the homeless vagabonds among them. The respectable ones had settled in towns and recognized as honest citizens and professional musicians.
Townspeople were not exactly peasants, but except for the rulers of the town, they weren’t the gentry, either. By the way, if the town church had a choir at all, it comprised priests, never minstrels. Minstrels weren’t that respectable! None of them could read music for another hundred years or so, anyway.
The most plausible explanation of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” that I have found says that it was sung by watchmen to the gentlemen in town. In the 15th century, European cities were protected by gates and guarded by night watchmen. Watchmen had long learned that musical instruments like horns, trumpets, and shawms were ideally suited for signaling at light.
Towns eventually found ways to put them to the additional work of entertaining townspeople and distinguished visitors, so by the 15th century, the night watchmen doubled as the town band. In other words, they became minstrels who played loud wind instruments.
I suppose it is somewhat more likely that the watchmen were on watch duty at night. They may well have played the tune (or whatever other tune was sung to the text at that time) during the day.
English watchmen probably learned “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” by rote from singing minstrels—the original “Beatles” who worked out the tune and its harmonies and counterpoint.
Minstrels had limited opportunity to visit and work in other towns besides their own residence, and that would be one kind of opportunity for new tunes to spread throughout the country.
No matter when or how “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” originated, no matter whether we have the tune first associated with the text, it is a rousing good tune and a text with a message that resonates throughout much more than the five centuries the carol may have existed.
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