Appalachia Christmas Music

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

God rest ye merry gentlemen

While I’ve always like the Christmas song God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, it wasn’t one I grew up singing. I guess I mostly heard it this time of the year on various Christmas music outlets.

After Paul and Pap recorded the song on their Songs of Christmas cd it became my favorite version. I recently checked out one of my favorite Christmas books – Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins to see if it had an entry for God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. It did-and as usual Collins details a fascinating history of the song.

The song was written over 500 years. The story of a song lasting throughout that number of years is fascinating in itself. But for me the most interesting part of the history detailed by Collins is the change that has occurred in the meaning of the words used in the song since that time.

“When modern people say “Merry” Christmas, the word merry means happy. When “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was written, merry had a very different meaning. Robin Hood’s “Merry Men” might have been happy, but the merry that described them meant great and mighty. Thus, in the Middle Ages, a strong army was a merry army, a great singer was a merry singer, and a mighty ruler was a merry ruler.

So when the English carolers of the Victorian era sang, “merry gentlemen,” they meant great or mighty men. Ye means you, but even when translated to “God rest you mighty gentlemen,” the song still makes very little sense. This is due to another word that has a much different meaning in today’s world and a lost punctuation mark.

The word rest in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” simply means keep or make. Yet to completely uncover the final key to solving this mystery of meaning, a comma needs to be placed after the word “merry.” Therefore, in modern English, the first line of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” should read “God make you mighty, gentlemen.” Using this translation, the old carol suddenly makes perfect sense, as does the most common saying of the holidays, “Merry Christmas.”

You might wonder why, when most didn’t fully understand the real meaning of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the old carol remained popular. The world’s love for this song is probably due to its upbeat musical piece paired with the telling of the most upbeat story the world has ever known. Those who sing it naturally get caught up in the celebratory mood of the message and embrace the same kind of emotions that those first to visit the baby Jesus must have felt. As the angel told the shepherds, “I bring you news of great joy.” That joy and the power of faith can be felt and experienced in every note and word of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” You just have to know how to translate the words into the language of the day to have a very Mighty Christmas!”

Jump over to this page to read Collins piece on the song in it’s entirety.

A version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is on Pap and Paul’s Songs of Christmas cd.

Give it a listen-and see if you like their version as much as I do.

If you’re interested in purchasing one of Paul and Pap’s cds- Songs of Christmas you can jump over to the Blind Pig & the Acorn Etsy Store and pick one up.


*SourceStories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins

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  • Reply
    Lisa Snuggs
    December 22, 2014 at 9:06 am

    I took the liberty of sharing this jewel on Facebook by posting a link. Amazing how words evolve and change.

  • Reply
    December 21, 2014 at 11:45 pm

    Interesting history!
    The very same thing has happened with words in The Bible meaning something entirely different when written than they mean now.
    One word that leads to confusion, for example, is the word “translated” as used in Hebrews 11:5(KJV) referring to Enoch who was taken or ascended directly to God without death, and in Colossians 1:13(KJV) referring to born again believers but in modern-day words, would be the word “transported” or “moved.”
    Other words that have changed that come to mind are the words “fear” which in modern-day words would be “respect” or “reverence” NOT “scare” or “terrify” and “abomination” which is used in accordance with foods and with life styles which in modern-day words means to “belittle” or “depreciate”.
    There are many words like that in The Bible which makes it a very good reason to have a good Young’s or Strong’s Analytical Concordance at hand when studying it, so that one will be studying the actual Word of God as it applies to today’s language instead of what it meant hundreds to thousands of years ago.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    December 21, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    You find the greatest stuff, Tipper! I’ve always enjoyed this carol. My husband played a duet to that this morning (trumpet/trombone) at church, kind of a jazz arrangement.
    Love Pap & Paul, too.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    December 21, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    Pap and Pauls Christmas CD’s stay on my stereo til after the holidays. Love them.
    Also love the history lessons. Makes me listen a bit more closely to the words.

  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    December 21, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    Geat detective work, Tipper! Great song, too- Wishing you and the whole Blind Pig Gang a wonderful Christmas!!

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    December 21, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    And may God rest you merry, Tipper. Thank you for another great year of Blind Pig and the Acorn.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    December 21, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    Ha, ha, ho, ho, he, he, yuk, yuk, yuk and chortle, chortle so funny….we are still laughing at Cindy’s recognition of you as a ‘merry sleuth’!
    Just loved today’s post and comment by Cindy!
    Thanks Tipper,

  • Reply
    Judy Mincey
    December 21, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    That explains why my British friends say “Happy Christmas”! They are conforming to modern usage. I had not put that together until now although I knew the meaning of the carol’s words. Thanks for all you do to keep us informed. Pap & Paul’s version is my favorite.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    December 21, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    For whatever reason I never associated God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen with Christmas although it seems to have the right words and phrases. It always seemed more of a sermon given to soldiers before they were to go into battle telling them that though they suffer and die today, God long ago sent us hope that tomorrow will be peace, comfort and joy.

  • Reply
    December 21, 2014 at 11:39 am

    Thanks for the meaning of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” I have Paul and Paps “songs of Christmas” and enjoy all the songs. What I like
    about their singing is you can
    understand their words.
    I’m anxious for Jan.23rd to see
    The Pressley Girls at the Folk

  • Reply
    December 21, 2014 at 10:46 am

    Thanks for the history lesson. It is amazing how the meaning of words change with use and time. I like to sing the song, and I think I will pay closer attention to the words as I sing them.

  • Reply
    Bobby Dale
    December 21, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Thank you for sharing this yuletide translation. It is quite interesting, as I never really thought about it, but have enjoyed the Carole all my life.
    Bobby Dale

  • Reply
    Barb Wright
    December 21, 2014 at 8:15 am

    How interesting..I always learn such neat things here!

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    December 21, 2014 at 7:24 am

    It makes perfect sense now, God rest you merry sleuth!

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