Christmas songs #18: God rest you merry, gentlemen

The last three songs, of which this is the first, are addressed to all people and call for us to rejoice in the birth of Christ. With this song we almost always mistake the meaning of the first line. The song, which is about 200 years old, does not say,

God rest you, merry gentlemen,

as if the gentlemen were already merry before the song reaches them.

Instead, the song, which is about 200 years old, says

God rest you merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay!

Which means that the men were NOT merry; in fact they might have been anxious. But the song-singer says “God rest you merry” which is an old fashioned way of asking for God’s blessing on them. He says, “Meditate on the Christmas story with me and you will praise the Lord and not be anxious.” And so the refrain keeps saying that these are “tidings of comfort and joy!”

The words are very folky, so they are pretty hard to understand nowadays. But the general drift is not hard to catch.

(To hear the song, click the link or paste into your browser. Finally, where it says “Don’t have a Rhapsody account?”, push “Play Now.”)

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.

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy;
O tidings of comfort and joy.

In Bethlehem, in Israel, this blessed Babe was born,
And laid within a manger upon this blessed morn;
The which His mother Mary did nothing take in scorn.


From God our heavenly Father a blessed angel came;
And unto certain shepherds brought tidings of the same;
How that in Bethlehem was born the Son of God by name.


“Fear not, then,” said the angel, “Let nothing you affright
This day is born a Savior of a pure Virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him from Satan’s power and might.”


The shepherds at those tidings rejoiced much in mind,
And left their flocks a-feeding in tempest, storm and wind,
And went to Bethlehem straightway this blessed Babe to find.


But when to Bethlehem they came where our dear Savior lay,
They found Him in a manger where oxen feed on hay;
His mother Mary kneeling unto the Lord did pray.


Now to the Lord sing praises all you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas all others doth efface.


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