And are you getting a little tired of it?
“Do You Hear What I Hear?” is not one of my favorite carols. And hearing a hundred different versions of “The Little Drummer Boy” on the radio drives me to listen to the forbidden secular music. While everyone else is humming an appropriate tune for the merry season, I might be heard singing under my breath about ruling as queen bee, baby (if I’ve been on the pop station) or about that hotel in California (if I’ve turned to classic rock). It’s not that I’m a Grinch or anything. A little Trans-Siberian will get me in the Christmas spirit, and I could listen to “How Many Kings” from the group Downhere until the cattle are lowing. But while the local CCM station does keep all those “Drummer Boy” renditions on their loop, I’ve only heard my favorite modern carol once this year.
Speaking of merry, I learned something new this holiday season about one of those old songs that causes me to switch on over to the music of the dark side. The story behind “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” brought me new respect for the gentlemen in question.
With no record of its origin, the song became popular among the English peasants more than 500 years ago. But what means one thing in the modern world meant something else to those who crooned the tune on a cold Christmas Eve so long ago. Not the kind of song that would have been sung in the local cathedral, it was a folk song for Christians wanting something a little different than the dry Latin lyrics and gloomy music they heard at services. (Seems the issue of “Church music” has been going on for a while.)
When families and neighbors gathered to offer their praise for the glorious gift of the newborn babe, they sang what we would assume meant God, grant some relief to these happy men. But that wasn’t the message of this upbeat song. A little study on the language of the time tells a different meaning in the opening line.
The word rest didn’t refer to a long winter’s nap. It meant to make or to keep. The word merry, to us means happy and joyful. But to the sad peasant who lacked the means for a better life, it meant strong or mighty. And according to experts, there is some missing punctuation. It was lost over the years when modern interpretation gave the line new meaning. A comma once stood before the gentlemen. So, in the minds and on the tongues of the original band members, the popular hit song went something like this: God keep you strong, gentlemen. Or: God make you mighty, gentlemen. Maybe the ladies were included as well, but these words were an encouragement to the downtrodden men of the day that God would increase their strength by the telling of the great plan of salvation. The line “to save us all from Satan’s power when we have gone astray” meant then exactly what it means now.
That’s what it’s all about. The reason for the season. The next time I hear one of the singers I really do like singing this particular old song I got tired of hearing, I won’t change the station. I will sing along.
“God make you strong, you guys and gals, let nothing bring you down.” Well, maybe I’ll just sing the old words, but I’ll remember their original meaning. As for meeting the inoffensive “Happy Holidays” with a quick retort, maybe next time I’ll cheerfully say, “And a Mighty Christmas to you!”
Drums and dancing don’t impede
Instruments woodwind and reed
Lift your bow to string
Lift your voice and sing
Come with me and blow your horn
A savior came that blessed morn
Great gain for life for death will fall
A Mighty Christmas Day to all