“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is one of the oldest Advent hymns. Dating back to the 15th or 16th century, the author is unknown. It was written in England and sung for 400 years before it was officially published in 1815. Knowing the Old English meaning of this old song, along with the hardships people faced during this period of history sheds new light on what this Christmas carol is all about.
Luxuries were not available to the millions of working poor, who toiled for long hours in mills, mines, factories and docks. The dreadful working and living conditions of the early 19th century persisted in many areas until the end of the Victorian age. The dark shadow of the workhouse loomed over the unemployed and destitute.English heritage
Peasants who sung this carol certainly understood what it meant to live in poverty and debt. Many probably felt oppressed and beat down by the monarchy and upper classes. Most people didn’t live past the age of 40, and many children died before they were 2 years old. Debtor’s prisons were common in England during the 14th-19th centuries, keeping some prisoners for 30 years or longer. When a person failed to pay a debt, they were imprisoned along with their family. Some people were thrown in prison for owing a debt as small as 60 cents! “Debtors were by far the largest element in the 18th century prison population, often innocent tradespeople who had fallen on hard times. Legal action taken against them by creditors kept them in prison until they paid their debts” (parliamentUK).
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was one of many Christian folk songs that commoners would sing in private gatherings away from “high church music” that was often dark and somber. The peasants would make up their own songs, singing them in their own common language. These songs were often accompanied by lively music and dancing (Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas).
The common language of this carol was Old English. “Rest” in Old English means “to keep, make, or cause to be.” The word “merry” doesn’t mean merry at all in Old English; instead it means “mighty or strong.” (for example, Robinhood’s merry men would be translated Robinhood’s mighty men). “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”would actually be translated, “God keep you (or cause you to be) strong (mighty), Gentlemen.”
The title is not about happy fellows being urged to rest, which is what we might think today. The title may, in fact, be seen as a reassurance that God will keep these men safe and strong through Christ because Christ has been born on Christmas Day.Michelle Griep
When I realized the true meaning of this song, it blessed me so much! I imagined a group of poverty stricken peasants gathering at the end of a grueling work day. As they danced around the fire and sang the joyful songs of Christmas, their burdens seemed to roll away. They wished each other well as they sang “God keep you strong, Gentlmen!” No wonder “tidings of comfort and joy” is mentioned so many times in the lyrics. The message of the Gospel is beautifully liberating and joyous! What comfort to know that no matter what hardships we face, Christ will be strong in us!
Ephesians 6:10 says, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might” (NASB). The word for “strong” here means “to strengthen, to make strong, vigorous.” Paul further explains this power in Ephesians 1.
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.Ephesians 1:18-21 NASB
Paul is saying that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is the power that is working in those who believe! In Colossians, Paul says this divine power is how he labors. “For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me” (Colossians 1:29 NASB).
Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NASB
1. Read Colossians 1:9-12. What does Paul pray?
2. Read Ephesians 3:14-21. What do you learn about God’s strength and power in these verses?
3. Read 2 Timothy 1:7. What has God given us?
4. Read 2 Peter 1:3. What has God’s power granted us?
5. How does the message of God’s mighty power bring you comfort and joy? Take some time and praise the One who is powerful in you!!
Click here to listen to the Cambridge Singers on YouTube.
Click here to watch Peter Hollens with the Hound and Fox on YouTube.