What a Difference a Comma Makes!
Which title is correct?
“God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen”
“God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”
This carol is one of the best-loved Christmas hymns sung all around the world at this time every year. But does the song tell us about merry gentlemen resting or gentlemen who should be resting and merry?
Let’s take a look at the song’s roots:
Although the text was first published in 1833, it might have had its earliest origin among the 16th-century Waits bands (the night watchmen of that time), who travelled round London singing on the street corners and in taverns.
Some hymn arrangers of early versions decided to change the hymn’s meaning by putting the comma in the first line after the word “you,” but contemporary historians have concluded that is an incorrect interpretation.
Let’s take a look at the carol’s lyrics:
The first stanza and chorus go like this:
God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
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.
At first glance you would come to this conclusion: It’s a song that depicts the gospel — Christ came to destroy the works of the devil, and now we (or the “gentlemen”) can rest and have comfort and joy. Therefore, all gentlemen can be merry. Right?
Well, not quite. If we trace the original meaning of the word “merry” in the Old English language, it could mean happy. However, it also has a second meaning: “mighty.” How many of you remember reading about Robin Hood and his “merry” men? In that case, the word didn’t mean happy. It meant mighty. Robin Hood’s men were strong and mighty, men to be feared. Therefore, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” really means God rest you mighty (or in God’s strength), gentlemen.
I think you agree that knowing the origin of the words of this carol makes a huge difference in its meaning. So the next time you sing “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,” remember where the comma is and how meaningful that one little punctuation mark is. And we, as mighty men and women, can make a difference this Christmas by living our faith before those around us. Amid the holly and the tinsel, we can tell them that Christ was born to die and that placing our faith in Him grants us life in heaven forever.
Have a wonderful Christmas season!