Where the comma sits in ‘God rest ye merry gentleman’ has been debated by scholars for years. Bob Lepine explains what difference it makes to the meaning of the song, and why Christians should care
There is really only one time of year when the word ‘merry’ becomes a regular part of our vocabulary. We don’t wish our neighbours a merry bonfire night. No one says to his or her sweetheart: “Merry valentine’s day.”
Maybe people talked about making merry or being merry 100 years ago, but those usages went out with top hats and the industrial revolution. In the 21st Century, if someone says the word ‘merry’ we know what comes next. It’s either ‘Christmas’ or ‘go-round’.
The familiar Christmas carol ‘God rest ye merry gentlemen’ should include a comma in the title. I’ve left it out intentionally here because I want to see if you know where it belongs.
Before you answer too quickly, you should know this is a matter of scholarly debate. Writing in the New York Times in 1971, Pulitzer Prize winning author and music critic, Harold Schonberg, recounts his quest to solve the mystery. He tells about how, leafing through a book published in 1859, he came across a reference to the carol. The author had the song title punctuated as follows: ‘God rest ye, merry gentlemen’.
We are not being invited to rest, but encouraged to rest merry — that is, remain in a state of merriness
“The title looked wrong to me,” Schonberg writes, “and in a moment I remembered why. Everybody knows that the correct punctuation is ‘God rest you merry, gentlemen.’”
His curiosity led him from the Lincoln Center to the New York Public Library, where he searched through hymnals looking for comma placement. What he found was a potpourri. Some place the punctuation mark between ‘ye’ and ‘merry’; others where Schonberg assumed it belonged. Still others left the comma out completely, perhaps hoping to avoid a dispute with fellow music lovers.
Schonberg’s research eventually brought him to this resting place: “Scholars of the day were notoriously inaccurate. I will believe nothing until I see the actual broadside sheet in the British Museum. It would not surprise me if the original had no punctuation at all… So, God rest you, merry gentlemen, in this Christmas season, and that’s the way I’m going to consider the carol until better evidence comes along.”
Now, who am I to quibble with a Pulitzer Prize winning author and music critic? And yet fools rush in where angels fear to tread. So here goes.
Whatever the broadside sheet in the British Museum shows, there should be a comma after ‘merry’. That’s where it belongs.
And yes, it matters.
James Farmer gets it. In a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times, Farmer said: “Years ago, I wrote an essay titled, ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a dependent clause.’ I wrote this in an attempt to correct a chronic punctuational error in one of the carols.
The name of this song is usually rendered, ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,’ but it should be titled, and sung, ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.’
You see, the gentlemen are not being invited to rest, as in take it easy. They are being encouraged to rest merry — that is, remain in a state of merriness.
In a trial, when the parties are finished, they will say something like, ‘The defence rests.’ That means the party is prepared to stand by its position.
The same applies when you tell someone to rest assured that you will do something. It does not mean recuperate. It means remain.
I rest my case.”
A Christmas blessing
Farmer has the Oxford English Dictionary in his corner. From the 1500s onwards, the phrase: “God rest you merry” can be found in letters and in literature. Shakespeare uses it in As You Like It. It was a common way of passing on a blessing to another person; a way of saying: “God bless you” or: “May God grant you peace and happiness.” It’s akin to the Jewish ’Shalom’.
The reason for merry hearts at Christmas is wrapped up in remembering that Christ our saviour was born
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘merry’ as: “full of gaiety and high spirits.” When you wish someone a merry Christmas, that’s what you’re wishing them – a holiday season where spirits are high, where stress and sadness are kept at bay and expectations aren’t over inflated. In our mind, ’merry’ and ’Christmas’ go hand in hand. They belong together.
Which brings us back to the carol. No one knows who wrote the lyrics, which date back more than five centuries. The words have morphed as our language has shifted over the years. Some older manuscripts start the song with: “Sit yo merry gentlemen.” Maybe it’s time to revisit that. It has a nice hip hop feel, don’t you think?
But while the words have morphed, the sentiment of the song hasn’t changed. The reason for merry hearts and the absence of dismay at Christmas, we’re told, is wrapped up in remembering “that Christ our saviour was born on Christmas day to save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray.” That’s the reason we can spread tidings of comfort and joy.
Bob’s latest book, The Four Emotions of Christmas, is available now