God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen
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God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen is an English traditional Christmas carol. It is in the Roxburghe Collection (iii. 452), and is listed as no. 394 in the Roud Folk Song Index. It is also known as Tidings of comfort and joy, and by variant incipits, as Come All You Worthy Gentlemen God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, God Rest Ye, Merry Christians or God Rest You Merry People All.
It is one of the oldest extant carols, dated to the 16th century or earlier. In the earliest known printed edition of the carol is in a broadsheet dated to c. 1760. The traditional English melody is in the minor mode; the earliest printed edition of the melody appears to be in a parody, in the 1829 Facetiae of William Hone. It had been traditional and associated with the carol since at least the mid-18th century, when it was recorded by James Nares under the title "The old Christmas Carol".
The carol is referred to in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, 1843: "...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."
The first recorded version is from Three New Christmas Carols, Printed and Sold at the Printing-Office on Bow Church-Yard, London, dated ca 1760. Its first verse reads:
- God rest you merry, Gentlemen,
- Let nothing you dismay,
- For Jesus Christ our Savior
- Was born upon this Day.
- To save poor souls from Satan's power,
- Which long time had gone astray.
- Which brings tidings of comfort and joy.
The transitive use of the verb rest in the sense "to keep, cause to continue to remain" is typical of 16th to 17th century language (the phrase rest you merry is recorded in the 1540s). Etymonline.com notes that the first line "often is mis-punctuated" as "God rest you, merry gentlemen" because in contemporary language, rest has lost its use " with a predicate adjective following and qualifying the object" (Century Dictionary). This is the case already in the 1775 variant, and is also reflected by Dicken's replacement of the verb rest by bless in his 1843 quote of the incipit as "God bless you, merry gentlemen". The adjective merry in Early Modern English had a wider sense of "pleasant; bountiful, prosperous". Some variants give the pronoun in the first line as ye instead of you, in a pseudo-archaism.
A variant text was printed in 1775 in The Beauties of the Magazines, and Other Periodical Works, Selected for a Series of Years. This text was reproduced from the song-sheet bought off a caroller in the street. This version is shown here alongside the version reported by W. B. Sandys (1833) and the version adopted by Carols for Choirs, (OUP, 1961) which has become the de facto baseline reference in the UK.
|The Beauties of the Magazines (1775)||Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, W. B. Sandys (1833)||Carols for Choirs (1961)|
1. God rest you, merry gentlemen,
2. From God that is our Father
3. Now when they came to Bethlehem,
4. With sudden joy and gladness,
5. Now to the Lord sing praises,
1. God rest you merry, gentlemen
2. In Bethlehem, in Jury
3. From God our Heavenly Father
4. Fear not, then said the Angel,
5. The Shepherds at those tidings
6. But when to Bethlehem they came,
7. Now to the Lord sing praises,
1. God rest you merry, gentlemen,
2. From God our heavenly Father
3. The shepherds at those tidings
4. But when to Bethlehem they came,
5. Now to the Lord sing praises,
- Come All You Worthy Gentlemen, For Christmas, Also known as The Somerset Carol, Title: "A Christmas Carol" Words and Music: English Traditional from Mr. Rapsey, of Bridgwater, Somerset. Cecil J. Sharp, ed., Folk Songs From Somerset. Series V. Second Edition. (London: Simpkin & Co., Ltd., 1909), #CXXVI, A Christmas Carol, pp. 68-69. "Come all you worthy gentlemen / That may be standing by. / Christ our blessed Saviour / Was born on Christmas day. / The blessed virgin Mary / Unto the Lord did say, O we wish you the comfort and tidings of joy!" "Words and air from Mr. Rapsey, of Bridgwater. Mr. Rapsey told me that he learned this carol from his mother, and that when he was a lad. he used to go round Bridgwater in company with other boys at Christmas time singing it. It is, apparently, a shortened version of the well known carol 'God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen' [...] Mr. Rapsey's words were not very clear and I was compelled to amend them in one or two places, but they appear in the text substantially as he sang them. The word 'say' in the penultimate lines of the first two verses I was at first inclined to regard as a corruption for 'pray,' which is the usual reading. But the Rev. Allen Brockington thought that 'say' was merely used intransitively, as is not unusual in Somerset, for 'talk,' i.e. 'prattle.' As this is at least a possible explanation I have retained the word that Mr. Rapsay sang." (Notes on the Songs, p. 91.)
- "God Rest Ye, Merry Christians" in Mildred Gauntlett, Fifty Christmas Carols (London, 1906), p. 39 The use of ye may go back to alternative words written by Dinah Craik (1826 - 1887) given in Charles Lewis Hutchins, Carols Old and Carols New (Boston: Parish Choir, 1916) with the title God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. This particular version has the incipit God rest you merry, gentlemen, but verses 2 and 3 begin God rest ye little children and God rest ye all good Christians, respectively.
- apparently designed as gender neutral variant, recorded since the 1980s; mentioned in the Prince Alfred College Chronicle of 1980, p. 7.
- Barrie Jones (ed.), The Hutchinson Concise Dictionary of Music, Routledge, 2014, s.v. "carol", "Christmas carols were common as early as the 15th century. [...] Many carols, such as 'God Rest You Merry Gentlemen' and 'The First Noel', date from the 16th century or earlier."
- Three new Christmas carols, [London], [1760?]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale.
- William Chappell, Popular Music of the Olden Time vol. 2, 1859, p. 752 (hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com). Hone's version goes :"God rest you, merry gentlemen, / Let nothing you dismay; Remember we were left alive / Upon last Christmas Day, / With both our lips at liberty, / To praise Lord C[astlereag]h / For his ‘practical’ comfort and joy". Chappell states the earliest record of the words is in a manuscript by James Nares, entitled "The old Christmas Carol". In the Halliwell Collection of Broadsides, No. 263 1750?, Chetham Library, a song "The overthrow of proud Holofernes, and the Triumph of virtuous Queen Judith" is accompanied by the instruction that it is to be sung "to the tune of Tidings of comfort and joy.", indicating that Tidings of comfort and joy was well-known at the time and the primary lyrics associated with the tune. For the traditional English melody, see also David Holbrook and Elizabeth Poston (eds.), The Cambridge Hymnal (1967), pp. 236-37.
- Three new carols for Christmas, printed by J. Smart (ca. 1780–1800) has the first verse:
- God rest you merry Gentlemen,
- Let nothing you dismay;
- Remember Christ our Saviour,
- Was born on Christmas-day;
- To save our souls from Satan's power,
- Which long time had gone astray:
- This brings Tidings of Comfort and Joy.
- The word could mean "pleasant-sounding" (of animal voices), "handsome" (of a dress), "fine-tasting" (of herbs) or simply "fine" (of weather). The more profane associations of hedonistic "merry-making" developed only in the late 18th-century, based on expressions such as merry-bout for sexual intercourse (1780) or merry-begot "illegitimate" (1785). See also Merry England.
- ye is in origin the nominative of the second person plural pronoun see also Early Modern English pronouns.
- "On Christmas Carrols" in The Beauties of the Magazines, and Other Periodical Works, Selected for a Series of Years, vol. 2 (1775), printed for Gottlob Emanuel Richter, 87f. A reader only identified as "C." submits it as an example of how "an ignorant zeal in religion has occasioned many shocking sentiments to be broached that the greatest scoffers of Christianity would not dare to have uttered"; he complains of "having my ears pestered in every street this last week, by numberless women and children singing what they called Christmas carrols, but what, if I had heard them in an alehouse, or if they had been sung by drunken people in a night-cellar, I should have thought the most bare-faced reflections and the grossest buffoonry upon the most sacred subject that could be devised by the devil himself." "C." says he bought the song-sheets of a woman singer ("[a] poor woman with two children bundled at her back and one in her arms, and who, I am persuaded, was very far from knowning what she said") to prevent her from continuing in her "profane treatment of sacred subjects" and sends the text he found on the sheets to the magazine as an illustration of "the same carrols I have heard sung about the streets in this season for above these thirty years" (viz., since the 1740s).
- William Sandys, Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern; Including the Most Popular in the West of England, and the Airs which They are Sung. Also Specimens of French Provincial Carols, London, Beckley (1833), 102–104 (hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com).
- Jury for Jewry, i.e. "in Judaea".
- The use of deface in the final verse of the 1833 and 1961 versions has the archaic meaning of "efface; outshine, eclipse"; because of the now more familiar meaning of "spoil, vandalize", the New English Hymnal of 1986 and other more recent versions replace it with efface.
- The New Oxford Book of Carols, ed. Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 527
- An eight-verse version of this carol can be heard at New Star Sound
- Arrangements for Piano and Voice from Cantorion.org
- This hymn on Hymns Without Words
- This hymn on The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
- This hymn on Oremus
- Audio sample of the song performed by the German choir Outta Limits
- Discussion of lyrics and grammar of the first line by Catherine Osborne