For the 2nd Day of Christmas, I thought I would cover a slightly unorthodox carol. “Good King Wenceslas” is set “on the Feast of Stephen” (which is today), and there are so many fun things about it. The song, which was actually included in a book of Christmas Carols in 1853, was written by the popular and prolific hymn-writer John Mason Neale. Neale was an Anglican priest and scholar, as well a sort of cultivator of ancient hymnody. He wrote original pieces, but his most famous works are all translations (the Presbyterian Trinity Hymnal has 13 hymns with Neale listed as author, but all but two are translations). You’ve probably never noticed, but it was Neale who translated “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” “Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain,” “The Day of Resurrection,” and “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation.” Not a bad resume, to say the least. “Good King Wenceslas” was an original, however, and, though lovable in its way, it is not on the same level as those treasures just listed. In fact, there’s a fairly large body of criticism of “Good King Wenceslas” out there, upset with both its hagiographical lyrics and its barbarous tune-pairing. Continue reading
Over the next two weeks I’d like to highlight some of my favorite Christmas carols. Since the 12 Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day and last until Twelfth Night, I’m actually a day early, but I don’t plan on doing any sort of work, not even blogging, tomorrow, so I figured I’d start early. The first one will be “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman.”
I like “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” because of the minor mode (I like pretty much anything in a minor key), but also because of the rich and unique words. As with most hymns and carols, the number of stanzas differs from place to place, and you might even find, to much chagrin, that a few words get changed here and there. Most versions of this carol have five stanzas, but some have less. A few even have as many as eight! I’ll just stick with the first stanza and the refrain, since they are the most famous.
God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior 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.
The first thing to note is the grammar of the opening line. It is not actually “God rest ye, merry gentlemen,” as most people assume. It is instead, “God rest ye merry, gentlemen.” The “gentlemen” are being addressed, and the song is wishing that God will “rest” them “merry.” The verb “rest” simply means “to be” or “make,” much like we might tell someone to “Rest assured.” And so what’s being sung is a request for God to make us merry. Why? Well, that’s what the rest of the song is about.
I also appreciate this carol’s inclusion of Satan. The big man downstairs is too often left out of the Christmas season, but that just can’t be. In a certain sense, Satan is the reason behind the “reason for the season.” He was the one who held all mankind under his sway, causing the people to dwell in darkness and needing to be set free. It was Satan who Christ came to defeat, and that meant that Christ had to come. So I say, “Keep the Satan in Christmas.” You really can’t tell the story any other way.
Never forget, the gospel is good news in the face of bad news. It is salvation from sin and death. Jesus is God’s answer to sorrow, suffering, alienation, and despair. Christmas has to have room in its story for the darkness, or else it becomes just one more romance among the many sentimental stories we tell this time of year. But of course, Christmas is also the story of how Light came into the darkness and filled it from within.
And that’s precisely what gives us hope, what gives us comfort and joy. We remember that Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day. That’s good news. Christ is born! Glorify Him!
Merry Christmas, y’all.