The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen - Notes

Words: English Traditional

Music: "Tidings of Comfort and Joy" as found in "The overthrow of proud Holofernes, and the Triumph of virtuous Queen Judith," the Halliwell Collection of Broadsides, No. 263, Chetham Library.

Inspiration: The Angel and the Shepherds, Luke 2:8-20

In many respects, this is a deeply misunderstood carol.

Part of the problem is punctuation, and part of the problem is the use of archaic words, specifically "rest" and "merry."

1. The Punctuation

The punctuation problem has to do with the comma. Does it go before the word "merry" or does it go after that word. Placement makes a big difference in understanding what this carol is all about. If we put the comma before "merry," we get:

God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen

The effect is to be wishing these "merry Gentlemen" a good rest with the implication that they might have been being a bit "too merry" (not an uncommon thing either then or now), and seeming to encourage a Bacchus-like celebration. But this completely misreads the intent of this carol. The true meaning of the carol is disclosed in lines 3 and 4 of the first verse:

Remember Christ our Saviour,
Who was born on Christmas-day,

This carol, then, is not an invitation to get "merry," but a blessing by the speaker that "God rest you merry." It should be punctuated thus:

God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen

In contrast to the somewhat cynical understanding of blessing gentlemen who have been a bit to "merry," when we see "God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen," we can also see a simple blessing to these gentlemen, that God give them rest (peace, joy, gladness, etc.), which is, in part, the motivation of the boy who peered through the keyhole at the firm of Marley and Scrooge (more on that below).

First Side Note:

I've recently encountered several Broadsides with this carol. A couple of them have no punctuation in the first line of this verse. Two examples are found below.

2. Archaic words and phrases.

This carol is dotted with archaic words and phrases, which comes as no surprise considering that it probably originated in the 16th Century, according to several authorities. In particular, gallons of ink and reams of paper have been devoted to explaining the meaning of the first line of this carol, specifically "rest," "merry" and "God Rest You Merry."

However, the phrases "rest you merry" and "God rest you merry" were in common use during those times. We find those and similar phrases in several of William Shakespeare's plays around the beginning of the 17th Century:

And in 1658, Abraham Cowley's play The Cutter of Coleman Street has Colonel Jolly saying:

I'm very sick again; Will, help me into my Bed; rest you merry, Gentlemen. (Act 2, Scene 8)

But what do these assorted "rest you merry" phrases mean? Fortunately, the Oxford English Dictionary gives several examples that clarify the meaning, without the need to delve into the archaic uses and meanings of "keep" and "merry" in the 16th Century. Bishop Thomas Cooper lists the phrase 'rest you merry' in his Bibliotheca Eliotæ in 1548:

"Aye, bee thou gladde: or joyful, as the vulgare people saie Reste you mery." (Note that this is the revised edition of Sir Thomas Elyot's Dictionary of 1538.)

Thus, according to this dictionary, the meaning of "rest you merry" is "be glad or joyful."

In K. Deighton's note to Romeo and Juliet, the phrase "Rest you merry," or the equivalent, “God rest you merry,” “... was a common form of farewell among the lower orders, and equivalent to 'good luck to you.'”

In his commentary on As You Like It, William Rolfe wrote that "God rest you merry" in  Act V, Scene 1, is the equivalent of "God keep you merry," and "It was a common form of salutation at meeting, and oftener at parting."

Taking all these commentaries and definitions in consideration, it is fair to say that "God rest you merry," then, was a common idiomatic expression of greeting or farewell by the "lower classes." This sentence, then, could be recast as "God give you peace, good gentlemen" or "God grant you joy, dear gentle ones." The Oxford English Dictionary lists several other examples from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Second Side Note:

Far from being a strictly contemporary greeting, "Have a good day" also has roots deep in our culture, as evidenced by a few of these very old Christmas carols:

Third Side Note:

In Shakespeare's As You Like It, we see the origins of two other expressions, "good evening" and "good-bye."

We see the origin of "good evening" in Act 5, Scene 1, when, as William enters:

William: Good even, Audrey.
Audrey: God ye good even, William
William: And good even to you, sir.

"Good-bye" is explained in a footnote to a line in Act 5, Scene 3, when Touchstone exits with the line: God b' wi' you.

In Footnote 6 to Act 5, Scene 3, the editor explains:

"God b' wi' "is an old contraction of "God be with you," which was used a good deal in Shakespeare's time, and has occurred twice before in this play ; on page 63 and page 83. The phrase has been still further contracted into good bye.

Source: Henry Norman Hudson, ed., The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Harvard Edition, Volume 5 of 20, With Notes. (Ginn, Heath, & Company, 1881), Page 105.

Caveat

One last thing. This song is not a tightly woven theological thesis. It's a Christmas carol. It's purpose is to entertain and edify, not to educate. And if it's a little loose with your theology, wink and smile or re-write the lyrics if you really have to. But in the meantime, sit back, tap your toe, clap your hands, and wait 'till it comes around on the guitar ... and then join in with gusto:

"Oh, tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy,
oh, tidings of comfort and joy."

Okay. Let's get started.

It is the common consensus that this carol is among the most popular of carols. An early indication occurs in 1823 when antiquarian William Hone listed this carol as one of the 89 Christmas carols now annually printed. And he is not alone in his fondness for this carol. Twenty years later, Charles Dickens wrote his classic short story, A Christmas Carol, where we read:

"Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit's nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of —

"God bless you, merry gentleman! 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."

Thus, as William Studwell observed, the carol God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen is the Christmas carol of A Christmas Carol, a notable distinction indeed. Ebenezer could have saved himself quite an adventurous night — if only he had heeded these words when he first heard them.

Studwell also observed that it was most appropriate that Dickens chose this particular song, "for no other carol has had a stronger cultural effect on London and on England as a whole than the spiritual piece which infringed on Scrooge's grouch privacy." Studwell believed that London, and its Waits, were probably the source of this carol in the fertile sixteenth century.

The Texts

Many authorities feel that the carol originated in the 16th Century, although not printed until the 18th Century. It's popularity was such that in addition to inclusion in Hone's 1823 list (above), William Sandys included it in his 1833 collection Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (pages 102-103), with music. And three years after Dickens included it in A Christmas Carol, Edward Francis Rimbault included it in his 1846 A Little Book of Christmas Carols, also with music (below).

The earliest known text, Sit You, Merry Gentlemen, is found in a manuscript in the Bodleian Library. MS Eng. poet. b. 5., ca. 1650. A copy is also contained in the Cornish Hutchens manuscript in Cornwall. This manuscript that contains mainly religious songs for communal use assembled in the 1650s. No image has been located, yet.

The next oldest example is contained in an old Broadside, circa 1700, together with three other "choice carols for the Christmas holidays," which was found in the 1770 Roxburghe Collection in the British Library (see left). The image to the right is from Vol. 7 of The Roxburghe Ballads (1871); see God Rest You Merry – Roxburghe Collection (Roxburghe iii.452, circa 1700). The other three carols were:

This same Broadside was also found in the Harding Collection, Harding B 7(27) at Broadside Ballads Online at the Bodleian Libraries. The printer was Angus in Newcastle, who operated between 1774 and 1825.

Several other Broadsides exist that have this carol, including a remarkably similar Broadside that was printed and sold by J. Marshall, Newcastle and Gateshead, between 1801 and 1831. The broadside contains three carols: I. On Christmas day ("God rest you merry gentlemen!"). II. On St. Stephen's Day ("In Friendly Love And Unity"). III. On St. John's day ("When Bloody Herod Reigned King"). This broadside is contained in the Halliwell-Phillipps Collection of Printed Ephemera, Chetham's Library, Long Millgate, Manchester M3 1SB, and is located in "HP H.P.920." An image is not available. Chetham's Library was founded in 1653 and is one of the oldest public libraries in the English-speaking world. Note that J. Marshall could not have been the publisher of the broadside in the Roxburghe Collection, as he did not begin business until 1801, while the Roxburghe Collection is dated to 1770 according to what I have read, and this broadside is dated to circa 1700.

At the Broadside Ballads Online web site, a total of 33 Broadsides contained this carol,  published by 14 identified printers or publishers in six identified cities, including London, Newcastle, York, Liverpool, Birmingham, Coventry (there were a number of broadsides where the name and location of the printer could not be determined). The earliest was printed between 1750 and 1800, and the last between 1850 and 1900.

Husk observed that "There is no carol, perhaps, so universally known as this," and that only The Seven Joys and The Sunny Bank approach it in popularity (the three are frequently printed on the same broadside sheet, together with Adeste Fideles). He also noted that "As may be expected of a piece so often printed and sung in districts so widely separated there are several variations in the different copies of this carol...."

William Studwell also observed that by the eighteenth century many variants could be found. Originally, he wrote, the third and fourth lines were "For Jesus Christ our Savior was born upon this day" Shortly, however, a variant began to appear: "Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day." Both versions are still found today.

Sylvester also noted that each village seemed to possess its own variation of this carol, a sentiment echoed by John Camden Hotten in Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, “With regard to the text of this carol I may remark that nearly every town in England, at each succeeding Christmas, supplies us with variations.”

Some of those different versions are listed below.

The Music

Joshua Sylvester, in 1861, wrote that "This is perhaps the greatest favorite of all the carols now sung at Christmas. The melody is homely and plaintive, and appears to touch that chord in the popular mind which more elaborate compositions appeal to in vain." Likewise, A. H. Bullen wrote in 1885 that it was "the most popular of Christmas carols."

William Hone, writing in Ancient Mysteries Described (1823), gave us this insight into this carol:

"The melody of 'God rest you Merry Gentlemen' delighted my childhood, and I still listened with pleasure (as who does not) to the shivering carolist's evening chant toward the clear kitchen windows deck'd with holly, the flaring fire showing the whitened hearth and reflecting gleams of light from the surfaces of the dresser utensils."

Like many carols, this carol has had a variety of musical settings.

In Popular Music of the Olden Time, William Chappell (1809-1888) wrote that “I have seen no earlier copy of the tune than one in the handwriting of Dr. Nares, the cathedral composer, [James Nares, 1715–1783] in which it is entitled “The old Christmas Carol ...” And although only two tunes are usually printed in association with this carol, Chappell noted that "I have received many others from different sources, for no carol seems to be more generally known."

1. The "London" Tune

According to Keyte and Parrott, the editors of the New Oxford Book of Carols (NOBC), the traditional tune — the "London" tune — is descended from "Chestnut or Jack Doves Figary," found in Playford's The English Dancing Master (1651).

They hold the opinion that the tune probably came to England from France, and observed that it is found widely in Europe.

This is the second tune in Oxford Book of Carols whose editors stated that the tune came "from a broadside printed by J. & C. Evans, Long-lane, London, some fifty years before Rimbault [1846]," an opinion shared by James J. Fuld, who wrote in his The Book of World-Famous Music that "The first printing of the present melody is said to have been in a broadside printed by J. & C. Evans, Long-lane, London, about 1796, but no copy of this broadside has been found."

Note, however, that a more likely date is between 1822 and 1828, according to information contained at the web site of Chetham's Library, Manchester. A broadside printed by J. and C. Evans, Long-lane, containing "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen," is contained in the Halliwell-Phillipps Collection of Printed Ephemera, Chetham's Library, Long Millgate, Manchester M3 1SB. According to the library web site, J. & C. Evans were printers in London at 42 Long Lane, West Smithfield, between 1822 and 1828. The broadside consists of four carols: I. "God rest you merry gentlemen,". II. "The moon shines bright,". III. "The first good joy our Mary had,". IV. "When Joseph was an old man,". It's Location is "HP H.P.925." An image is not available.

The oldest printing of the "London" melody with lyrics that I've seen so far was in 1820 when it was included in the satirical A Political Christmas Carol by William Hone (right). E. F. Rimbault printed this melody in 1846 in his A Little Book of Christmas Carols, below (note that Rimbault is erroneously said to have been the first to collect this melody). This was the version printed as Carol #1 by Bramley and Stainer in the very influential Christmas Carols New and Old, First Series (ca. 1860s), which greatly popularized this tune in Great Britain.

 

Sheet Music from Edward F. Rimbault, A Little Book of Christmas Carols.
London: Cramer, Beale & Co., 201, Regent Street, No Date (circa 1846).
Ancient Version, as sung in the streets of London
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML

Bramley and Stainer, Christmas Carols - New And Old, First Series.
London: Novello & Co., no date, but likely in the 1860s.
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML

God_Rest_You_7a.gif (471114 bytes) God_Rest_You_7b.gif (417866 bytes)

If you enjoy Classical Guitar as much as I do, check out "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by Classical Guitarist James Sundquist at YouTube. This is a clip from the "Christmas in Prophecy Concert" at The Lion's Den, Church of the Nazarene, Paramus, New Jersey, from his album: An Anthology of Sacred Carols for Classical Guitar, on Eagle Masterworks Productions. CDs and MP3s can be ordered on Amazon.com.

2. The "Cornwall" Tune

The most frequently seen "second" tune is based on a folk melody from Cornwall in the west of England. The tune was first published by William Sandys in his 1833 Christmas Carols Old and New.

William Sandys, Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern. London: Richard Beckley, 1833, pp. 102-103.

music04.gif (272208 bytes) music05.gif (320767 bytes)

William Sandys, Christmas-tide, Its History, Festivals and Carols, With Their Music. London: John Russell Smith, 1852

Other editors have often reproduced Sandys' tune, as, for example:

Sheet Music from Edward F. Rimbault, A Little Book of Christmas Carols.
London: Cramer, Beale & Co., 201, Regent Street, No Date (circa 1846).
Ancient Version, as sung in Cornwall
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF /
XML

William Chappell (1809-1888), in Popular Music of the Olden Time, Vol. 2, wrote that he had previously published two tunes for "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" in his earlier work, English National Airs. The tunes were (1) one from Hone, and (2) one in a major key. It's likely that the "one from Hone" was the one published with his 1820 satire, A Political Christmas Carol.

Chappell then prints the "London" tune from Dr. Rimbault's book, and the "Cornwall" tune from Sandys' collection. 

London
"God Rest You Merry Gentlemen"

Cornwall
"God Bless You, Merry Gentlemen"

 

Both The English Carol Book, First Series (ECB) (1913) and The Oxford Book of Carols (OCB) (1928) give us these two tunes; this is no surprise, since both were edited by Martin Shaw and Percy Dearmer (with R. Vaughan Williams in the latter). Interestingly, the first tune in ECB was the second tune in OCB, and vice versa.

First and Second Settings from
Martin Shaw and Percy Dearmer, The English Carol Book, First Series.
London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1913.
First Setting (London): MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML
Second Setting (Cornwall): MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF /
XML

The first tune in The Oxford Book of Carols is that given by Sandys in 1833, which was the Cornwall variant from the 18th century. The text from Sandys was used in the first version, and is the most commonly found version, although the editors of the OBC substituted the word "fiends" for "friends" in the 4th verse, which, they believed, was the version most generally sung.

Keyte and Parrott, in The New Oxford Book of Carols, give three tunes. The first is the traditional "London" tune; the second comes Ralph Dunstan's The Cornish Song Book (1929), and the third was based on the version printed by Sandys in 1833 and 1852.

Sheet Music from Ralph Dunstan, The Cornish Song Book (London: Reid Bros., Ltd., 1929), pp. 86-7.

Version 1, "The popular version of the Tune"
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML

Version 2, "Variant of the tune was formerly popular in Cornwall"
(From a Setting, Harmony and Melody, in a M.S., c. 1845)
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML

A Setting by Lewis Henry Redner

Studwell also noted a tune by Lewis Henry Redner (1831-1908), the composer of the original melody for "O Little Town of Bethlehem." The setting below is from Charles L. Hutchins, Carols Old and Carols New (Boston: The Parish Choir, 1918), Carol 509.

God_Rest_Ye_Merry_509.gif (171428 bytes)

A Setting by T. C. Smith

An additional setting was found in the Journal of the Folk Song Society (Vol. II, 1906), p. 281, "God a-rest you all merry gentlemen," sung at Scarborough with the setting by T. C. Smith.

God a-rest you all merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas Day,
For to save our souls from Satan's pow'r
Long time we've gone a-stray
Glad tidings of comfort and joy, and a joy!

Concerning this version Frank Kidson noted:

This is a traditional Scarborough version of the ever popular carol. "God rest you merry, gentlemen," used to be formerly traditionally current in Leeds, but it is seldom now heard, and then always comes from a printed source. The old Leeds version has considerable resemblance to the Scarborough one. The tune above printed came to me many years ago from Mr. T. C. Smith.

Additional settings are noted in the list below, and see God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen - Version 1 (which contains this sheet music, plus arrangements from several other authorities). In general, the variants are rarely heard.

In sum, there seem to be several known melodies:

  1. The traditional "London" tune, which is the first tune from EBC. Keyte and Parrott identify this as "Chestnut (or Doves Figary)" from Playford's The English Dancing Master (1651), which formed the basis of the version from Bramley and Stainer, now the "standard" version which is heard. This is version two from OBC, and is used by numerous other carols according to the editors, and as listed by Rev. Ian Bradley in The Penguin Book of Carols. Rev. Bradley also reports that Albert Lancaster (A. L.) Lloyd has traced the tune as far back as 1580. The tune is characterized as a "luck" tune. There is also a setting from Cecil S. Sharp which is substantially similar to this tune.

  2. The Cornwall tune of Sandys 1933, which is the second tune from EBC, the first tune in OBC, and third setting in NOBC.

  3. Another Cornwall tune, from Ralph Dunstan's The Cornish Song Book (1929), which is the second tune in NOBC (arr. the first two lines are reminiscent of the first version above; the third line and refrain diverge). See Dunstan's God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen (I & II)

  4. The setting from William Henry Husk, 1868, which similar to Dunstan's, has the same first two stanzas, but diverge in the third and the refrain.

  5. A fifth tune, from Lewis H. Redner, was published by Charles H. Hutchins, Carols Old And Carols New (1916).

  6. The setting of "God Bless You, All" is from O. Hardwig, The Wartburg Hymnal (1918).

  7. A setting mentioned by Keyte and Parrott in the NOBC was identified as from "the Cornish Hutchens manuscript" (Sit You, Merry Gentlemen). Sandys mentions it in passing in Christmastide - Chapter 10. According to published sources, the original text can be found at Oxford Bodleian Library, MS Eng. poet. b. 5. The Hutchens Manuscript, according to Keyte and Parrott, is archived in the Davies Gilbert archive, Cornwall County Record Office, Truro. While we have the text, I haven't yet discovered a copy of the musical setting.

  8. The Journal of the Folk-Song Society, "God a-rest you all merry gentlemen," sung at Scarborough with the setting by T. C. Smith.

"Chestnut (or Doves Figary)" from Playford's The English Dancing Master (1651)

Hone, ca. 1820

Sandys, 1833 & 1852

Rimbault, A Little Book of Christmas Carols (ca. 1846)

 

God_Rest_Ye_Merry_509.gif (171428 bytes)

Setting by L. H. Redner from Hutchins (1916)

Parodies, Satires and Humorous Adaptations

A large number of parodies have arisen over the years (see below), including a few which cannot be reproduced on a family-safe site. 

An early satire, A Political Christmas Carol, written by William Hone (1780-1842) in 1820, referring to Lord Robert Stewart Castlereagh (also Castelreagh) (1769-1822), the second Marquess of Londonderry:

“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 Ch_____
For his ‘practical’ comfort and joy!”
    &c.

This parody was printed in his Facetiæ and Miscellanies (London: Hunt and Clarke, 1827), with the full title

"A Political Christmas Carol : Set to music : to be chaunted or sung throughout the United Kingdom and the dominions beyond the seas, by all persons thereunto especially moved"

The date of composition was 1820. In November 1819, Lord Castlereagh had been the author of the repressive "Six Acts," Parliament's response to incidents which took place in Manchester the preceding August (e.g., "The Peterloo Massacre").

Lord Castlereagh had been the earlier target of Hone's 1817 "Official Account of the Noble Lord's Bite!" In "The Political House that Jack Built" (1920), Lord Castlereagh appeared as "Derry Down Triangle"; the nickname derives from the triangular framework into which people were strapped while being whipped. This satire is also found in Hone's Facetiæ and Miscellanies.

A later satire is a three-verse parody written by Gilbert Keith (G. K.) Chesterton (1874-1936):

God rest you merry gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay;
The Herald Angels cannot sing,
The cops arrest them on the wing,
And warn them of the docketing
Of anything they say.

God rest you merry gentlemen,
May nothing you dismay:
On your reposeful cities lie
Deep silence, broken only by
The motor-horn's melodious cry,
The hooter's happy bray.

So, when the song of children ceased,
And Herod was obeyed,
In his high hall Corinthian
With purple and with peacock fan,
Rested that merry gentleman;
And nothing him dismayed.

This was Chesterton's response to a statement issued by the Chief Constable declaring that carol singing in the streets by children is illegal, and morally and physically injurious. He appealed to the public to discourage the practice. This poem/carol was published in Chesterton's The Ballad of St. Barbara: And Other Verses (1922), pp. 54-55, and is widely reproduced.

A number of other satires and humorous parodies are noted below.

Finally, this was not the only reference to a Christmas hymn or carol in A Christmas Carol. See: A Child of the Snows-Chesterton.

Versions

  1. Sit You, Merry Gentlemen - The oldest found so far, this version from Cornwall is contained in the Cornish Hutchens manuscript; the original is in the Oxford Bodleian Library, MS Eng. poet. b. 5., ca. 1650.

  2. God Rest You Merry – Roxburghe Collection, ca 1700, one of many Broadsides.

  3. God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen - William Sandys, 1833 (most of the sheet music is here)

  4. God Bless You, Merry Gentlemen - from Sharp, 1911

  5. God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen - from Hutchins, 1916. Words: Dinah Maria Mulock Craik; Music: L. H. Redner

  6. God Bless You, All Good Christian Men - from Hardwig, 1918 (Compare versions 4 & 5)

  7. God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen (I & II) - Ralph Dunstan, The Cornish Song Book, 1929

  8. God Rest You Merry Gentlemen - A Good Christmas Book, 1847

Humor:

Sources

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