A lot of religious music used by the church in the 15th century had been written in Latin. These songs were generally sung to sad or somber melodies that didn’t evoke a lot of enthusiasm or joy. So, in their own circles peasants wrote songs of their own using more uplifting religious themes and melodies. Many of these folk songs are what we think of when someone says “Christmas carol.”
God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman certainly falls into this category. In fact, this song was such a lively tune in comparison that it was typically danced to as they sang it; and it was easily the most popular Christmas carol of it’s day. In fact, it’s lyrics were actually closer to the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth than many of the songs being sung in the church at the time. Despite it’s popularity among peasants, it would not be published until the 19th century during Queen Victoria’s reign. First printed for the Anglican church, it soon became popular all over the world.
Words change over time. They change a lot. An entire branch of study called etymology (sort of a mash-up of history and grammar) exists that researches the older and original meanings of words that often fall out of use. Though not quite as astute in this branch of study as I would like to be, it holds a wealth of information, and understanding, concerning the meaning of antique language and literature. If you read my previous post you already understand that.
Today when we think of the word Merry we are thinking of a synonym for happy, joyful, or festive. That is the popular use of the word in this present era. However, in the Middle Ages the word meant something altogether different–it was a word used to describe armies, soldiers, and rulers! In Middle Age English it literally meant great, strong, or mighty!
The charge of the song then, when taking into consideration the meaning I previously discussed for rest is God Make You Mighty… In comparison to the downer songs of their day this song was not only a tune of celebration, but for the Middle Age peasants who wrote, loved, and popularized it… it was a battle cry. In fact the seasonal salutation “Merry Christ Mass” was thought to be such a powerful and happy notion to the peasants that it actually influenced the change in the meaning of the word to become what we understand today.
Mighty Christmas to all!