Christmas Songs day 22: God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen

This song, a last-minute substitution since I had trouble finding the song I had planned for today, was published in 1833 (so it would actually be known to my steampunk character! Fancy that). It’s done in the minor mode, according to Wiki, which according to my much more musical partner Chaos says makes people uneasy and sounds a little depressing. Not what you’d expect from a Christmas carol, that’s for sure! But it makes sense; picture the first noel, the long, cold winter night, the uncertainty of the stable birth in a time when many women died in childbirth, the weight of sin uncleansed from the world…

I jest, of course. That’s the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan, hardly a traditional interpretation. Though I do like that version; it’s got a little groove in it I dig.

The usual version is more like this:

Nat King Cole proves that the minor mode doesn’t have to be dark and soulful; it can be joyous, but still holds depth and an intriguing sound to it. And he’s about as traditional as you can get these days.

Of course, there’s Glee. For once, they’re not too bad, doing an almost acapella version, all female:

This verse, in particular, always stands out to me:

Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface.

To my ear, it sounds like celebrating any other holiday “defaces” Christmas, doesn’t it? Of course, its not true. “doth” takes a third person subject, “It”, rather than a plural “all”, meaning “All others” must be the object of the sentence, meaning Christmas “defaces” all other holidays. While today “deface” means mar or damage, apparently an archaic meaning was “obliterate”; Christmas literally destroys all other holidays, according to this song. Except that that’s not true either, apparently, because other sources of mine mention that it used to be synonymous with “efface” or “outshine”, but that’s not nearly as nice a mental image

Food for thought. Here’s Boyz II Men:

More food for thought: apparently, the singer is not wishing the “Merry gentlemen” to be “rested” by “God”, but  for “God” to “rest you merry” to the “gentlemen” in general, if that makes sense. It’s the same kind of sentence construction as “let nothing you dismay”; while “rest” is never and “dismay” only occasionally used in the transitive sense anymore, this was more common when the song was written. See also “let nothing you affright”,  which isn’t even used as a word anymore, let alone a transitive verb. We would today use “scare”, which is a much less interesting word I think. Too round.

Have some Clockwork Orchestra, in honor of Erika:

I totally want to put together a steampunk modern dance troupe, don’t you?

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4 Responses to Christmas Songs day 22: God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen

  1. interleaper says:

    Speaking of steampunk, or at least gaslamp fantasy, there’s the video for Annie Lennox’s version: http://vimeo.com/20871079

    I only seem to like Christmas carols in minor keys, and that’s my favorite rendition of my favorite one.

  2. Firedrake says:

    Yes, “rest you merry” is the phrasing; there’s even a comma after “merry” in the original lyric. So the sense is “may God cause you to (be/remain) merry, gentlemen”. There’s another archaism in the last verse – “This holy tide of Christmas / all other doth deface” simply means that it outshines all other times of year, not that it vandalises them. Some modern versions use “efface” instead.

    ObHistoricalLinguistGeek: “enjoy” used to mean “give joy to” as a transitive verb (en-joy), so if you liked something you would say “that thing enjoys me”.

    I’m a sucker for minor mode, and for converting other tunes into it.

    Ooh, I like the harmonies on that Glee version. Would be even better with some bass voices.

    I want to build a steampunk modern dance troupe.

  3. Pingback: Deconstruction Round Up, December 28th, 2012 « The Slacktiverse

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