“God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”
TITLE: "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen"
AUTHOR: Traditional English carol, 18th century
TUNE: Traditional English melody
SOURCE: Worship & Song, no. 3052
SCRIPTURE: Luke 2:8-13; Luke 2:14; Luke 2:15-20
TOPICS: angels; Bethlehem; brotherhood; comfort; Incarnation; joy; Jesus' birth; Mary; music; singing; praise; Satan; shepherds
The Companion to the Hymnal (1964) quotes a description of this carol as "the most popular of Christmas carols." Its first publication dates from around 1770 and includes seven original stanzas. The five stanzas in Worship & Song are taken from this version. The first publication of the carol in Methodist collections was the 1964 Methodist Hymnal.
The Oxford Book of Carols includes a second version dating from the approximate same time or perhaps a bit earlier. This version includes an additional stanza often sung but omitted from Worship & Song:
"God bless the ruler of this house,
And send him long to reign,
And many a merry Christmas
May live to see again.
Among your friends and kindred,
That live both far and near,
And God send you a happy New Year.
Most instrumentalists, including keyboardists and guitarists, will attest to the difficulty of playing this carol, especially at an exuberant, lively tempo suitable to the Christmas text . It is a challenge, as well, for choirs to sing in parts and in tune. This results largely from the unrelenting chord changes on successive melodic notes. In the first phrase alone, the fourteen melody notes include eleven chord changes. The second phrase is identical. The third phrase also has fourteen melody notes with a chord change on every note. The first phrase of the refrain has fourteen notes with twelve chord changes, and the second refrain phrase has eleven notes with eleven chord changes. Such rapid harmonic rhythm is unusual for traditional hymns. Although the Pew Edition of Worship & Song does not call for it, it is common for choirs and congregations to sing the verses of this carol in unison and the refrain in parts, as called for in the 1966 Methodist Hymnal.
The five verses make use of the AAB bar form followed by the refrain. The abundant use of quarter note values for the melody is broken by longer notes only at the cadence points. The two A phrases (stollen) cadence on the dominant. The B section (abgesang) cadences on a C major harmony, briefly moving the tonality to F major from D minor, which is repeated in the first phrase of the refrain, with a final cadence on the tonic of D minor.
Note the prevailing shape and direction of the melody. The three phrases of the verse and the first phrase of the refrain are of the same shape: opening with a rise, falling in the middle of the line, and ending with a rise. The final phrase of the refrain begins with a rise to the upper D and then descends a full octave to the lower D on the final note, making use of an arch form.
In their original context, the phrase "God rest you merry" meant "God keep you merry." The comma between "merry" and "gentlemen" is missing from the earliest versions, which slightly alters the meaning. The meaning of our stanza five's "all others doth deface" is obscure. The line is sometimes replaced with "All anger should efface" or "Doth bring redeeming grace."
The text follows the sequence of events found in Luke 2, with the first and fifth stanzas serving as bookends, appealing to the community to celebrate the Christmas event as they are sung.
- Stanza 1: We should remain happy, dismayed by nothing, because Jesus was born to save us when we have strayed.
- Stanza 2: Jesus was born a Jew in Bethlehem. Even his being placed in a manger did not cause his mother, Mary, scorn.
- Stanza 3: God sent an angel to the shepherds with the news that Jesus, the Son of God, had been born in Bethlehem.
- Stanza 4: Rejoicing, the shepherds left their flocks in the field and went to find Jesus in Bethlehem.
- Stanza 5: Our response to the savior’s birth is to sing praises and embrace each other in love and brotherhood.
- Companion to the Hymnal: A Handbook to the 1964 Methodist Hymnal. Gealy, Fred D., Austin C. Lovelace and Carlton R. Young, eds. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970.
- The Oxford Book of Carols, Dearmer, Percy, R. Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw. London: Oxford University Press, 1928, rev. ed., 1964.