By THE ENTHUSIAST
Ye Olde Gentlemen
"God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" is one of the oldest carols in the Christmas canon, one we’ve been singing since the 16th or 17th century. It first appeared in print (alongside other worthy carols making their debut appearance including "I Saw Three Ships" and "The First Nowell") in William B. Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient And Modern in 1833.
In Which The Enthusiast Misunderstands
Well past childhood, The Enthusiast believed that the sense of the opening line was "God rest you, merry gentlemen" – that is to say, "Get some sleep, party people" – and has always pictured raucous revelers getting ready to tuck into bed. Only recently has it become clear that the comma goes after "merry," not after "you" – "God rest you merry, gentlemen." Fair enough. But one can’t help but miss those merry gentlemen.
In Which The Enthusiast Misunderstands Yet Again
The Enthusiast’s all but limitless capacity for misunderstanding doesn’t stop there. The gentlemen in question, it seems, aren’t getting ready to pull up the covers at all. The spoilsport Oxford English Dictionary notes that when the carol was written, "God rest you merry" meant "May God grant you peace and happiness." The Enthusiast will require more than one Tom & Jerry to adjust to a world where the gentlemen in the title are neither merry nor sleepy.
The Wind In The Willows
Many a caroler has rolled her eyes at the lazy rhyming of "wind" with "mind" and "find" in verse five:
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.
Such snarky choristers are clearly forgetting about the Great Vowel Shift, a gradual change in pronunciation that altered the sound of long vowels in the English language between the 15th and 18th centuries. When "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" was written, "wind" was pronounced not like "the wind that shakes the barley" but like "you’d better wind that clock at bedtime before your big flight tomorrow, Santa." In other words, don’t blame the lyricist: blame generation after generation of insouciant Englishmen.
The Care & Treatment of Carolers
"God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" received the ultimate Christmas accolade when it made an appearance in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Take that, "I Saw Three Ships"! Denied, "The First Nowell"! Scrooge is just as delighted to hear it sung as you might imagine:
... 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.
Dickens, you’ll note, put the comma after "you," not "merry." The Enthusiast is just saying.
Number twenty-two in a series.
22 December 2020
The Enthusiast (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the pen name of critic Michael Collins. He reports back only on what’s good, never what’s bad. He is currently imbued with the holiday spirit.