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  • Writer's pictureFr. Vili Lehtoranta

The Christmas Carol of “A Christmas Carol”

This post was originally published in my St. Mennas Newsletter in December 2017. An abridged version of A Christmas Carol, made by Charles Dickens himself, is included in my Christmas stories collection The Gift of the Wise Men. This collection also has another classic Christmas story by Dickens, The Chimes.


One of the true classic Christmas stories in the English literature is Charles Dickens’ tale A Christmas Carol. It tells about Ebenezer Scrooge, an old miser, who is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, and three ghosts of Christmas, and how Scrooge is transformed into a kind man by these visits.



Before Scrooge’s “conversion”, one unsuspecting young carol singer goes at his door and starts to sing a Christmas song called God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen. As the book lively narrates:


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.


This Christmas song is the only Christmas carol mentioned in A Christmas Carol. It is believed that this particular carol was sung to the gentry (high class) by town watchmen who earned additional money during the Christmas season. The lyrics to this simple song are held to be one of the oldest carols.


But the message of the song is often lost to the listeners because of its old English. To understand the message, one must know where the comma of the song title goes. Just like it makes a big difference if it’s “Let’s eat Grandma” or “Let’s eat, Grandma”, so also in this song the comma makes a big difference.


What most of the people hear is this:


God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen


The effect in this version seem to be wishing these “merry Gentlemen” a good rest, with the implication that they might have been being a bit too “merry” – of course not an uncommon thing on Christmas-time either then or now.


But this placement of the comma completely changes the message of this classic Christmas carol. The true meaning of it is revealed in lines 3 and 4 of the first verse:


For Jesus Christ our Savior

Was born upon this day.


This carol, then, is certainly not an invitation to get “merry.” Instead it is a blessing by the speaker that “God rest you merry,” and should be punctuated this way:


God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen


Though not used today, the phrases “rest you merry” and “God rest you merry” were in common use during old times. For example, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in the first act, a servant says to Romeo: “Ye say honestly: rest you merry!” It was not only a blessing, but also a common form of farewell among the lower orders of the society, and equivalent to “good luck to you.”


So in this Christmas carol of A Christmas Carol, in contrast to the somewhat cynical understanding of giving a blessing to gentlemen who have been a bit too “merry,” when we read “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,” we can also see in the song a simple blessing to these gentlemen, a wish that God would give them rest (peace, joy, gladness, etc.). This certainly was, in part, the motivation of the boy who peered through the keyhole of the firm of Marley and Scrooge.


One final word about the given name of this classic miser of A Christmas Carol. His name “Ebenezer” is of Biblical origin. During the time of the Judges, the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant, but at the destruction of their idol Dagon, they gave it back. By the preaching of Samuel, the Israelites threw away their idols, and Samuel offered the sacrifice of thanksgiving. And to commemorate the victory over the Philistines “Samuel took one stone, and laid it between Masphath and Sen: and he called the name of that place, The stone of help.” (1 Kings 7:12) And he said: “Thus far hath our Lord helped us.” So the Ebenezer, which is how the Protestant King James Version transliterates the word, marked the place so far as God had helped His people. The name is well known among American Protestants, not just because of A Christmas Carol, but also because of the popular hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, based on this event in the life of Samuel. The second verse contains the words:


Here I raise my Ebenezer;

Hither by Thy help I’m come;

And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,

Safely to arrive at home.



GOD REST YOU MERRY, GENTLEMEN


God rest you merry, gentlemen.

There’s nothing you dismay,

For Jesus Christ our Savior

Was born upon this 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.


In Bethlehem in Israel

This blessed Babe was born,

And laid within a manger

Upon this blessed morn;

The which His mother Mary

Did nothing take in scorn.

O tidings, etc.


From God our Heavenly Father

A blessed 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, etc.


Fear not, then said the Angel,

Let nothing you affright,

This day is born a Savior

Of virtue, power, and might;

So frequently to vanquish all

The friends of Satan quite.

O tidings, etc.


The shepherds at those tidings

Rejoiced much in mind.

And left their flocks a feeding

In tempest, storm, and wind.

And went to Bethlehem straightway.

This blessed Babe to find,

O tidings, etc.


But when to Bethlehem they came,

Whereas this Infant lay.

They found Him in a manger

Where oxen feed on hay,

His Mother Mary kneeling

Unto the Lord did pray.

O tidings, etc.


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

Doth bring redeeming grace.

O tidings, etc.

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