The Real God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

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God Rest Ye Merry GentlemenPsst. Here’s what that title actually means.

Somehow, God Make You Mighty, Gentlemen just doesn’t evoke the same Christmas spirit as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. But, without the evolution of the English language, that is how the beloved Christmas carol would be known today. 

Like most of the earliest Christmas songs, it was penned as a direct reaction to the music of the church. Usually written in Latin and put to somber, dark melodies, church songs were hardly a source of comfort and joy.

While people continued to go to organized worship services, they created their own light, lively church music — outside the walls of the cathedrals and chapels — in common language. Their Christmas folk songs became the foundation of our cherished Christmas carols.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen was the most famous and loved of all the early carols. Written 500 years ago with an upbeat melody and a joyful message about the birth of Jesus, the song was sung for centuries before finally being published in the 1800s. 

Because Queen Victoria loved Christmas carols, the song won the approval of the Anglican Church. Soon the Protestant English clergy were enthusiastically teaching God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen to their congregations. Moving to Europe and America, the carol became a favorite throughout the Christian world, and it is still sung in much the same way that it was originally. 

Today, however, with the change of word definitions over time, few people fully understand the meaning of the carol. Now, when people say “Merry Christmas,” they mean “Happy Christmas.” Yet when God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen was written, “merry” meant “great and mighty.”  

So, 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. (Just think about Robin Hood’s “Merry Men.”) When English carolers in the Victorian era sang “merry gentlemen,” they meant “great or mighty men.”

“Rest” also has a much different meaning in today’s world. In the Victorian era, it meant “keep or make.” So, in modern English, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen becomes God Make You Mighty, Gentlemen. Over time, the comma after the word “merry” has been lost as well. Using this translation, the old carol suddenly makes perfect sense, as does the most common saying of the holidays, “Merry Christmas.” In the language of today, have a “Great and Mighty Christmas!”