One of the perks of being a grandfather is occasionally driving several of my grandchildren to school. Our route takes us through the country where we have lively conversations about livestock, farming techniques, and…theology. Sometimes the conversation becomes more lively than conversant. This is the perfect time for me to break into song. Order is typically restored as they all immediately join in.
We often sing Christmas carols and it doesn’t matter if it is September or March. It always works. For several years, our favorite has been “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The beat is lively, the children all know the words, and I can usually start it in the correct key.
God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas Day. To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray, Oh tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, Oh tidings of comfort and joy.
These well-known lyrics are uncomplicated and straight forward, though I had never paused to explore what the songwriter meant by “rest ye merry.” Thankfully, my young choir members never asked me to explain these words.
I recently heard an interview with Ace Collins on Family Life Today. Based on his research of early Christmas carols, he claimed this song was one of the most famous and best loved of all the early Christmas carols. I had to agree. Ace went on to say that in the 500 years since the song was originally penned, the meanings of the key words “rest” and “merry” have changed.
How many times did you either say or hear the words, “Merry Christmas” in the past couple weeks? To most people today, the word merry means happy. Ace Collins went back to the meaning of the word in the Middle Ages. At that time, merry did not mean happy–it meant mighty. He explained that Robin Hood’s “merry men,” though they may have been happy, were being described as great and mighty. A strong army would be described as a “merry army” and a mighty ruler was a “merry ruler.” Soldiers were told to “Eat, drink, and be merry,” which meant, “eat up and drink up,” because tomorrow you many have to conquer someone. The expectation was not that they would be happy, but that they would deliver.
Now we are down to “God rest you mighty gentlemen,” which still makes little sense. Collins went on to explain that this is due to another word that has a much different meaning in today’s world–plus a lost punctuation mark.
In “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the word rest meant keep or make. By adding a comma after the word merry, this sentence makes perfect sense.
God make (keep) you mighty, gentlemen.
Now, look at the first verse of the song with the proper translation.
May God keep you mighty and strong, men and women, as you remember how God sent Christ on Christmas Day to be our savior and save us from Satan’s power. Oh, the comfort and joy that brings!
With my new understanding, this song now has much less to do with happiness and everything to do with remembrance and thankfulness. Throughout the Bible, God is described as “mighty.” Yet, God’s might is not for his own glory but is directed to save and deliver his people, the people who turn to him and trust him, the people God delights in.
Listen to Ace Collins on Family Life Today.
Read Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, by Ace Collins.