“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” Doesn’t Mean What You Think

A few years ago I downloaded a free ebook on my nook while sitting in a Barnes and Noble that has turned out to be a great resource that I go back to every year. The book is called Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins and it’s been a treat to own. Over the next few weeks I’ll share excerpts from the book.

More likely than not you probably didn’t know the true meaning of the hymn “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” or that a comma has vanished from the title over time.

When people today 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 the words “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 one last word that has a much different meaning in today’s world, as well as a lost punctuation mark.

The word rest in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” simply means “keep” or “make.” And 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 don’t fully understand the real meaning of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the old carol has remained popular. The world’s love for this song is probably due to its upbeat melody 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, embracing the same emotions that those first to visit the baby Jesus must have felt. As the angel told the shepherds, “I bring you good 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 in order to have a very “Mighty Christmas!”

I’m sure this hymn will now have a new, deeper meaning for you. If you haven’t read the lyrics recently I’d invite you to revisit them again because it so beautifully includes the important points of the gospel.