As I was decorating the house for Christmas and listening to carols, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” caught my attention. The words proclaim the joyous news of “Jesus Christ our Savior, born on Christmas Day, to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.” Yet the tune is in minor key, which gives the song an air of sadness. My curiosity kicked in (it doesn’t take much), wanting to know why the composer would make such a choice.
After a bit of research, here’s what I discovered: This is an old carol, dating back to 15th century England. The composer is unknown, so we have no record of the musical/ lyrical choices he made. However, we can make an educated guess about his motivation, to answer the question why he wrote this carol.
Church music of that time was rather dreary, and sung in Latin. The common folk would never have been allowed to compose music for worship, especially in English. So historians surmise that a peasant wrote this song, perhaps to be sung in his own home.
(May I be so bold as to suggest a woman may have created the song, as a diversion during household chores? Oh, wait a minute. A woman would have been more likely to compose “God Rest Ye Merry, Milk Maidens.” Never mind!)
Whatever its inception, the carol grew in popularity and soon was sung by many. It remained a favorite through subsequent generations and was finally published in 1833. Charles Dickens even chose the song for a scene in The Christmas Carol (1843):
“…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, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.”
Back to the question that began this investigation: Why such a positive message expressed with such a sad-sounding tune? Without much background information to go on, my curiosity has to be satisfied with conjecture. What would be a logical explanation for uplifting words set in a minor-key?
Perhaps the composer was trying to express the dichotomy in which we live.
First, the minor key suggests the sad reality that we live in a world oppressed by “Satan’s power” (from verse 1 of the carol). He is a roaring lion, prowling around for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8) with his lies and temptations. And what do lions choose to prey upon? The weakest of creatures who cannot easily flee.
The second half of the dichotomy comes from the cheerful lyrics, retelling the glorious story of Jesus’ birth. The chorus resounds again and again with “tidings of comfort and joy.” Why? “This day is born a Savior of virtue, power, and might” (from verse 3 of the carol).
And now the icing on the cake. (Or, more appropriately for this time of year, the star on top of the tree!) This Savior of virtue, power, and might is in us! Somehow His spirit entwines with each of ours. We can experience His comfort and joy, just as the carol proclaims.
Yet there’s more. We can experience His presence. We can rest in His peace, rely upon His wisdom, and go to Him for help and guidance. Not even these seven blessings cover the gamut of His loving-kindness to us.
Now, because our Savior of virtue, power, and might lives within us, we are not weak creatures, who cannot easily flee that roaring, prowling lion called Satan. Jesus, our Lord and Savior, is much greater than he is (1 John 4:4)!
My heart almost skips a beat, just thinking about such astounding realities. With a humbled, grateful, merry heart, I “now to the Lord sing praises” (verse 6 of the carol)–enthusiastically!
Will you join me?