God Rest Ye Merry, GentlemenFew characters in literature are as nasty as Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge . . . at least before his nightly visit of the three spirits of Christmas. Dickens described Scrooge as “a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone . . . a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!

Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t taw it one degree at Christmas. [1]

On a frosty and foggy, Victorian Christmas Eve, carolers were strolling the London streets. Scrooge worked late; and late he worked his clerk, Bob Cratchit. “Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold,” Dickens wrote.

If the good Saint Dustan had but nipped the Evil Spirit’s nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of

“God bless you merry gentleman!
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. [2]

Scrooge, as everyone knows, thought Christmas a humbug, including its carols. It’s telling that Dickens selected “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” as the carol that flared Scrooge’s anger. The carol illustrated Scrooge as a man gone astray, caught in the clutches of the satanic power of greed, and not at all a merry gentleman—though very much in need of merriment. The carol also illustrated Scrooge’s miraculous redemption—his generosity and care for his fellow man. “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. . . . And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” [3]

Dickens’s use of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” revealed the popularity of the carol in Victorian England. No one knows for sure the source of the carol. It was first published in 1833, but probably dates at least back to the sixteenth century. Some say the carol was sung by traveling minstrels, waits, who sometimes served as town criers. Strolling through the snowy streets of London, waits told the story of Christ’s Nativity in song, adding to the festive atmosphere at Christmastime. In shows of gratitude, townspeople often gave gifts to the waits.

Today, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is one of the most enigmatic carols in the hymnal. And the reasons why are of the most banal reasons—confusion about the placement of the comma and the meaning of “rest” and “merry.”

If the comma is placed after “ye” and before “merry” the carol’s message is a prayer for God to grant rest to gentlemen who’ve been a little too merry, perhaps with the spiked punch. But that doesn’t make sense with the lines that follow. The comma, therefore, belongs after “merry” and before “gentlemen.” In this case, the message of the carol is a blessing that God would grant rest and merriment to gentlemen in need—like Scrooge.

But what does it mean to “rest” and to be “merry”? In old English, resting meant more than sleep; it meant “settled” or “keep” or “make.” Merry, in old English, meant “joy” or “gladness” or “peace.” Literally, the sentence God rest ye merry, gentlemen means “God give you peace, good gentlemen” or “God make you joyful, good gentlemen.” And this makes perfect sense. Nothing brings more joy or peace than remembering that Christ saved us from Satan’s power. “O tidings of comfort and joy.”

William Shakespeare used the phrase in As You Life It.4 And it seems common folk in England often said it as a friendly farewell blessing, not unlike the Jewish blessings of Numbers 6:24–26:

The LORD bless you, and keep you;
The LORD make His face shine on you,
And be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up His countenance on you,
And give you peace.

Could there be a better “goodbye” than for the Lord to bless a departing friend with peace? I think not. So, during this joyous Christmas season: God rest you merry, my good friends. And remember, “Christ our Savior” came “to save us all from Satan’s power / When we were gone astray. / O tidings of comfort and joy.”

[1] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, in Christmas Books (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005), 6.
[2] Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 11.
[3] Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 78, 79
[4] William Shakespeare, As You Life It, 5.1.7, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1994), 636.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @derrickjeter.

Send to Kindle
Tagged with:

3 Responses to God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

  1. Knight says:

    I so enjoy your writings, thank you, love to your family.

  2. Polly says:

    Blessings to you and your precious family, dear one!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: