Referenced in Charles Dickens’s classic, A Christmas Carol, which was first published in 1843, God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen is not a carol that we often sing in church these days. Probably because we cannot really make this one use inclusive language, our more recent hymnals have left it out. And yet, Dickens included it and so have more recent adaptations of other curmudgeonly characters. So perhaps this vintage song deserves another glance.
The lyrics of the carol actually date back as far as at least the mid-seventeenth century, when the people of Great Britain had to listen to extremely somber worship services. (Some suggest as far back as the 1500s.) At the time, few Christmas hymns existed and even fewer were accepted in church. This one seems to have become popular in the public, however, and continued to make the rounds until it was finally published properly in 1760. The words continued to evolve from “Sit yo’, merry gentlemen” in the original and several other minor quibbles over the centuries. It has also had at least two different tunes associated with it, one named “Cornish” and one that is literally called “as sung in the London streets.” That’s apparently the one we know and love.
At the heart of this classic carol is a message that Christmas changes the world through love. A powerful love that sweeps through everything else and there is no power on earth that can stand in its wake. A line in the final verse really captures the essence of this: with truth love and brotherhood each other now embrace; this holy tide of Christmas all others doth deface. Because that is truly what this world needs – more love made tangibly real.
Now, I am convinced that we need to hear certain stories every year and to be reminded that Christmas does have the power to change minds and hearts. Even the coldest of them. And this song is included in both Dickens and in a modern adaptation of another classic tale about how Christmas can change the way we see the world (I’ve included a clip below).
My encouragement is to not only sing this carol loud and proud, but also to remember that it is ours to add to the holy tide of Christmas by making the world a kinder, more compassionate, and, most of all, more loving place in every way that we can. This Christmas and every day of the year.