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Music

Bah! Humbug!, but "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen": Olde English carol for an American Christmas

DW's head of the music department, Rick Fulker, recalls Christmas past and present, strenuous holiday rituals and an ancient melody that radiates glad tidings.

Rick is something of a Christmas slouch with mixed feelings about all the season's kitsch, commerce and church rituals. But not about the music. Asked about his favorite Christmas song, he mentions one that inspires both merriness and reflection.

The title, "God rest ye merry, gentlemen," is notable in part for the placement of the comma. It's not "God rest ye, merry gentlemen," which would suggest the song offers a blessing to merry gentlemen. Instead, "God rest ye merry" is a greeting in antiquated English translating roughly to "May God make you strong and fearless." That sounds strange today, but not to forget that "God be with you" eventually became "goodbye."

The melody is thought to date from the 15th century, but the text was first documented only in the 18th century. Charles Dickens quoted the song in his 1843 story "A Christmas Carol" about the world's most famous Christmas grouch, Ebenezer Scrooge. There is, of course, a happy end. The ill-mannered, tight-fisted protagonist is visited by the ghost of Christmas past and discovers the joy of generosity.

The six verses tell the Christmas story, encouraging the sad and burdened to let joy into their hearts. And the music! Rick believes that whoever composed it was a true master.

"The melody merrily climbs down the scale and back up again, yet is in a melancholy minor key. But in the accompaniment you hear leaps of joy," Rick noted.

The song's message is unambiguous however: "Tidings of comfort und joy, comfort and joy."