The choir of King's College, Cambridge, is in the middle of it's Advent Lessons & Carols service, singing this classic carol. Their phrasing is impeccable, and you can hear the comma between "merry" and "gentlemen." Thank goodness. But that is not always the case, leading to several hundred years of 'happy guys,' rather than a soul 'being well and happily kept' by God.
I love that Charles Dickens chose "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" to represent the whole kit and kaboodle to Scrooge.
"...at the first sound of — "God bless you merry, gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!"— Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror”
This carol was first written down in the 18th century, with no known composer.
As a song it is a triumph of clear, simple exposition of faith: the Son of God came by name to save us from sin and bring us comfort and joy. That’s what it’s all about, Charlie Brown.
As syntax, it is a little less successful, because "merry" is an adverb in hiding describing ‘how God should rest you’ where rest is the sense of "keep" or make," and not an adjective describing gentlemen, even when that comma goes astray (God rest you merry gentlemen). Which, I’m sorry to say, it did in the juvenile edition of the Dickens story that I bought for my niece. Sigh.
There is also the "ye" versus "you." Because it feels like it's from Merry Olde England, most people reach for the "ye." But "ye" is the nominative case, and so would not have been used as the object. And we know this because in one of the earliest surviving written documents for the song, from 1760 London, when thees and thous were in abundance, the word is "you." It's also what Dickens transcribed in 1843 for his story, and it's what Bing Crosby so clearly sings, so that settles it.
God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day,
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.
From God our heavenly Father
A blessèd angel came,
And unto certain shepherds
Brought tidings of the same,
How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by name:
O tidings ...
(update from 2009 post)