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A 1917 Edison Records recording
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"God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen", also known as "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen", is an English traditional Christmas carol. The melody is in the minor mode. It was published by William B. Sandys in 1833, although the author is unknown.
Like so many early Christmas songs, the carol was written as a direct reaction to the church music of the 15th century. However, in the earliest known publication of the carol, on a c. 1760 broadsheet, it is described as a "new Christmas carol", suggesting its origin is actually in the mid-18th century. It appeared again among "new carols for Christmas" in another 18th century source, a chapbook believed to be printed between 1780 and 1800.
It is referred to in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, 1843: "...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."
There is some confusion today about the meaning of the first line, which seems archaic to our ears. It is usually given today as "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen", with a comma after the word "merry", so does not refer to "merry gentlemen". "Rest" here denotes "keep or make," with "you" as the object of "rest;" "ye" was the nominative form, and thus was nonstandard as the object of a verb. The claim that "merry" once meant "mighty," and is so used here is not supported by the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives 16 definitions of the word, some going back to the 10th century, all having to do with pleasure or enjoyment. In both of the 18th-century instances, "you" was used instead of "ye," suggesting that the latter may be a modern insertion to make the carol sound more quaintly archaic.
The carol exists in a wide variety of versions, some with differing numbers of verses.
Circa 1760 (from "Three New Christmas Carols," Printed and Sold at the Printing-Office on Bow Church-Yard, London):
God rest you merry, Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Savior
Was born upon this Day.
To save poor souls from Satan's power,
Which long time had gone astray.
Which brings tidings of comfort and joy.
Circa 1780-1800 (from "Three new carols for Christmas," Wolverhampton, printed by J. Smart):
[Punctuation reproduced from the original—in this instance there is no comma after "merry."]
God rest you merry Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay;
Remember Christ our Saviour,
Was born on Christmas-day;
To save our souls from Satan's power,
Which long time had gone astray:
This brings Tidings of Comfort and Joy.