Christmas Carols and Historical Ignorance

This Christmas I’ve started to realize just how historically ignorant people are. Of course I knew there was a lot of ignorance concerning history in this country, but it’s much MUCH worse than I had previously assumed. How did I learn this? Through Christmas carols. Let’s start with a very well-known English carol: God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen. If you look up that carol in the hymnal at the bottom of the page you will see this: 18th century English carol. English? Absolutely. 18th century? Ummmmm…No. It’s much much older than that. And worse still, not only have we misstated the time period, but we also misinterpret the carol itself. “God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen” does NOT mean “God bless you happy gentlemen.” In the old English “merry” actually means “mighty.” And “rest” doesn’t mean “repose.” It means to “make” or “cause to be.” So the real meaning of the carol is “God make you mighty gentlemen.” Also, “gentlemen” were the landed aristocracy, which I find interesting.

Now, let’s discuss the English carol “Masters in This Hall” by William Morris. Interestingly, while God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen seems to have been written for the higher classes in English society, Morris was an English socialist who seems to have written his carol for the lower classes. The idea of the song, at least as I hear it, is the poor coming into the halls of the rich and proclaiming the birth of Christ to them. Unfortunately, some have erroneously claimed that the song is French. If you study the history of the carol, the tune is French, but the carol itself is English.

In closing, I’ll just say this: know your history. Even small errors in historical analysis can be dangerous. And complete ignorance of history is EXTREMELY dangerous. So just take some time to do some reading. Read a history book that you find interesting or at least palatable. You’ll enrich yourself and you won’t be sorry.

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