Words of the day: “rest” and “merry” from “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”
performed by Postmodern Jukebox
Behold, the power of a comma. Bet you thought it was “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen.” It’s not. It’s “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” In other words, the gentlemen aren’t necessarily merry; God is resting them merry (merrily?). The phrase “God rest you merry” was a thing back in the sixteenth-century day. It was like saying, “have a good one” or “take care,” except rather more substantive, I think, and I’ll get to why in a minute. If this comma placement is news to you, don’t feel bad. Although this well-wishing phrase shows up in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (act 5, scene 1, line 58), right around the turn of the seventeenth century, even by 1803, people were calling the gentlemen merry instead of resting them merry, and so this carol has a long inheritance of confusion over the matter.
I’d rather be told “God rest you merry” than “have a good one,” “yo, whaddup,” or even, “all my best.” Why? Because it can mean so many blasted cool things! I looked primarily at the words “rest and “merry.” Here’s a rundown:
From the same root word as “mirth” the word “merry” is all about pleasure and that which is delightful and originally was about making the time short, the idea that time flies when you’re having merriment. It was several hundred years before it was applied as a personal descriptor (like merry old St. Nick) and was used long before that as a way to describe activities, events, moods, etc. It’s especially associated with music (like the “merry organ” in the lyrics of “The Holly and the Ivy”) but can also be associated with climate, including right merry weather for sailing (?) and with brightly colored clothing. Something merry may also be something funny, and people often made themselves merry with, you guessed it, alcohol.
The word “rest” is the one that really gets me. What does it mean to wish someone that God would rest him or her? It can mean repose, comfort, a visitation of the divine (“the Holy Spirit rested upon her”), and even peace in death (R.I.P.). It can mean being refreshed, having peace of mind, the luxury of leisure, safety in sleep, to lie undisturbed, or, in the case of soldiers, to be at ease. In the LDS tradition, one scriptural verse identifies “rest” as “the fulness of his glory.”
Basically, we should all be wishing each other to be rested merry. Or merry rest. Or something, clearly.
One final thought: I love this version from Postmodern Jukebox, and I love the sassiness juxtaposed with this very old carol. Plus I love that it’s in a minor key, which doesn’t happen very often. There’s also “What Child Is This?”, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, ” and “Carol of the Bells.” If you can think of minor carols, let me know in the comments, and please, to all of you, God rest you merry today and this Christmas.