Possibly created in reaction to the church’s serious (dirge-like) Christmas music, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen is a traditional Christmas carol that likely dates from the mid-18th century and was sung by waites. With roots firmly planted in England, you’ll find variations of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen in works of English literature ranging from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (where Scrooge threatens to rap a caroler with a ruler if he doesn’t stop singing it) to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (with Sirius Black singing “God Rest You, Merrye Hippogriffs”).
Aside from its lack of definite origins, the most burning question about God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen is (drumroll please)…where do you put the comma? In A Christmas Carol, Dickens alters the lyrics and places the comma so it reads “God bless you, merry gentlemen.” But traditional lines of thinking believe the comma belongs after the word merry. In old English, the word “rest” can mean “to keep” or “to remain” and the word “merry” can mean “prosperous” or “mighty”. Different from Dickens’ idea of God blessing some happy (and probably carousing) gents, the more traditional, sacred interpretation of the text would mean “May God keep you prosperous and mighty in the Lord, Gentlemen…and let nothing you dismay!”
No matter how the lyrics are interpreted, however, the tune is as bright and cheerful as one can get in a minor key. To emphasize that joyfulness in my piano arrangement, I syncopated the rhythms in God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen and paired it with bits of a second, equally bubbly and rhythmic carol – Sing We Now of Christmas – a traditional French Christmas carol from the 15th century. Since the text of both carols tell the shepherds to get up and scoot off to Bethlehem to see the newborn Savior, they seemed like a natural fit for a medley. Enjoy!