Not all Christmas carols are created equal – and no, not just in that some are more popular than others. Carols, those which are still popularly sung and played throughout the festive season even by the secular among us, are small snapshots of the past of our country, its traditions and cultural roots. And few carols have a history as wild as ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’.
It’s mentioned in Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol – it’s, you know, the Christmas carol. “…at the first sound of ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen! 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.” That’s pretty cool. The earliest broadsheets for the carol are older than the United States of America, the rubber and the sandwich. That’s only it in print – the song itself likely originated in the 16th Century at the very latest. People were singing this song on the same earth as Galileo and Da Vinci, and while a German mapmaker made the very first globe.
But there’s more to this song than its history – its lyrics and their origin are metal as anything. It’s pretty much the only mainstream Christmas carol I can think of that mentions Satan in the first verse. It was my favourite as a child, partly for that self-same reason. Something quite cool, though, is how its title has become progressively mis-punctuated. ‘Rest’ in the 16th and 17th Centuries meant to remain or stay the same, so the title should be ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’ and not the ‘God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen’ we now tend to see. Also, yes, ‘you’ – we want to say ‘ye’ because it sounds suitably old fashioned, but that was added later as a sort of pseudo-archanism. Even the original 16th Century version had ‘you’ instead.
The song is boomingly coral, deep and rumbling like thunder. For all that it wishes listeners ‘tidings of comfort and joy’, it sounds so utterly dark and somber. It’s creation was a reaction of churchgoers, who in the 15th Century had little choice in their latin songs of worship and so created their own, telling the story in a similar style if with lyrics less oppressive than the hymns of the choir.
It is a festive song with the weight of a congregation behind it – it’s lyrics are positive and upbeat, celebrating the joy of the season, but it resonates with depth and history. For a traditional track for the season, you can do no better.