That the Barenaked Ladies, of all people, might resurrect the original meaning, tempo, and feel of a five-hundred-year-old traditional Christmas carol seems an utterly ridiculous notion. And yet, curiously, this is exactly what the Canadian power-pop group has done with the commercial success of their mid-90s version of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.
Of all the traditional carols, none has been more misunderstood than God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. None has been the victim of such periodic shoddy scholarship. None has so had its original joyous and raucous intent replaced by such somber plodding. Not that all of this ever detracted from its status as one of the most ubiquitous of all the season’s carols.
How ubiquitous is God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, you ask? Let’s just say this: you know that Charles Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol? The actual carol that the title refers to is God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. Which means God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen isn’t just a Christmas carol — it’s the Christmas Carol.
Like most folk songs, the precise lineage of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen is largely unknowable. Most music scholars agree that its earliest seeds came from England (though speculations of French origin are not uncommon), and that it most likely evolved into the tune we recognize today somewhere between the 15th and 17th centuries.
There is little doubt, however, that the song was one primarily enjoyed by the lower classes, and further was sung in the kinds of taverns where respectable people did not go. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen was, in other words, the kind of festive number very inebriated people would sing at the top of their lungs while dancing jigs and reels. And it had true staying power. It was still quite popular in the early 19th century, when the the recording on paper of lowly folk songs by noble gentlemen was all the rage in Great Britain.
The Anglican Church took notice, and decided (surely correctly) that the song’s original inspiration was Luke 2:8-20. The song was eventually incorporated into its official hymnal. Within a few generations the hymn had pushed the folksong aside, as God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen slowly became “respectable.” Indeed, for the next century and a half, whenever you encountered the piece it was most likely arranged to sound something like this:
Interestingly, fraudulent scholarship was eventually introduced to both strengthen the hymnal’s hold on the song and separate it from its plebeian roots. It’s still fairly common to find people note that the title, translated from the archaic, should read God Makes You Mighty, Gentlemen. This translation, obviously, relies on Rest and Merry having once meant Make and Mighty, respectively. The problem with this pervasive theory is that there is no record that either word was ever commonly used in anysuch a way; that they might have seems to have been a fiction created by 19th century religious academics specifically for the purpose of making this carol (and the Anglican hymnal) more respectable.
In fact, the phrase “rest you merry” was somewhat common vernacular in the time God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen was evolving. Shakespeare uses it often in such plays as As You Like It, Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure and The Tempest. The phrase was actually defined in Bishop Thomas Cooper’s Bibliotheca Eliotæ in 1548:
“Aye, bee thou gladde: or joyful, as the vulgare people saie ‘Reste you mery’.”
The title of the song, therefore, is a call to be joyous, and to be so specifically in the fashion that “vulgar” people expressed joy. What’s more, it was meant to be a call to be joyous with a drink in one hand, a loved (or lusted) one in the other, and one’s feet a’moving.
In other words, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen the revisionist hymn is a reverence; God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen the original folksong is a celebration.
All of which is to say that when the Barenaked Ladies released their version of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen with both Sarah McLaughlin and a dose of We Three Kings thrown in for good measure, it captured the original spirit of the delightfully “vulgare” folksong. (Mind you, the Canadians still managed to make it their own. Their replacing the traditional straight, marching quarter-note rhythm with playful eighth notes on the third down beat and fourth upbeat to create that jaunty swing feel is a thoroughly modern pastiche.)
Which version you prefer — reverent or celebratory — is a matter of taste, and I must confess that I prefer each at different times. In fact, perhaps my favorite these days is Wynton Marsalis’s reworking of the song’s somber, hymnal period through an Ellington-esque arrangement, which somehow is neither reverent or celebratory but rather downright melancholy.
Since the commercial success of the Barenaked Ladies’ version of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, a lot of other artists have been trying their hand at attempting to recapture the song’s original spirit to great success. It’s entirely possible that five hundred years ago people performed the song closely to Martha’s Trouble’s version (you can hear a sample here), or even Ceud Miles Failte’s jig (both of which are below). Regardless, each is terrific.