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’ve mostly heard the song around Christmas time playing on the radio or other music outlet.

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 ago. The story of a song lasting for 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.

Listen below to see if you like their version as much as I do.


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

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  • Reply
    December 17, 2017 at 12:37 pm

    About 10 years ago I bought “Songs of Christmas CD” and that was the first time I ever saw any of the Wilson Family. I was very pleased that I had gone to the JCCFS to hear their concert.
    Late last night I was watching TBN and govenor Mike Hulkabee was on. His guest was T. Graham Brown and he sung “Help Me Turn this Glass of Wine into Water.” That song reminded me of when my mama died, back in ’86. Back then, I smoked those Winstons like a Freight Train, almost two packs a day. I had smoked since I was a kid, but I asked the Lord to help me quit, for mama. To this day, I have never wanted one or smoked anything. That was my Miracle. …Ken

  • Reply
    Lynn Briggs
    December 17, 2017 at 10:29 am

    Thanks for that translation! Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  • Reply
    Paul Certo
    December 17, 2017 at 10:04 am

    I read something some years ago that explained it differently. There is a,comms missing in the modern versions. “God rest ye merry, gentlemen!” was a common salutation used when departing from companions at the end of an evening. I don’t recall where I read this, but if I can find it I will post it. Language does have a habit of evolving, though.

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    December 17, 2017 at 9:50 am

    God rest ye merry … everyone.

  • Reply
    December 17, 2017 at 9:44 am

    Very interesting. This thought reminded me as a young Christian trying to learn the true meaning of the Bible, ( and some passages, I still am, We’ll understand it better by and by ) a very dear friend of mine introduced me to the Greek and Hebrew translation of the Bible into English, long story short, I bet you find things your Sunday School Literature didn’t either included or it has a whole different meaning, I was least to say Surprised in my studies. Mans Interpretation and The True Translation is a very broad stroke of the pen, sometimes miles apart.

  • Reply
    Brian P. Blake
    December 17, 2017 at 8:46 am

    Someone told me that the title of this classic carol is “God rest ye merry, Gentlemen.” The comma characterizes the Christmas Season as a happy, joyful time–the birth of a new year filled with hope and promise–and wishes blessings on the revelers, good people of faith and virtue as loyal followers of Jesus Christ aspire to be.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    December 17, 2017 at 8:34 am

    We go caroling today. But that song is not one we sing. I like it myself but we do not have a book with it. As with most Christmas carols, the words are especially meaningful.
    It is a bit off the subject but I was saddened the hear that the words to an old Christmas standard had been changed to be politically correct. I’ll stick with the original.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    December 17, 2017 at 7:49 am

    Tip, I don’t know how you can manage to come up with all this obscure information! The song certainly makes far more sense when we understand the original intent/meaning of the words!
    There are a lot of hymns that I never really understood their meaning so the shifting of word intent is really important.

  • Reply
    December 17, 2017 at 5:54 am

    i agree on the version the best one yet. not a favorite song and i have wondered many times if Merry Christmas made any sense at all. now i know what it means it makes sense.

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