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December 2, 2014
 

Pt. 2: ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ and The Dickens Connection

“A Merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. Illustration by George Alfred Williams published in the 1905 edition of A Christmas Carol (New York; The Platt & Peck Co.; copyright, 1905 by The Baker & Taylor Company)

 

It is the common consensus that “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is among the most popular of carols. An early indication occurs in 1823 when antiquarian William Hone listed it as one of the 89 Christmas carols now annually printed. And he is not alone in his fondness for this carol. Twenty years later, Charles Dickens wrote his classic short story, “A Christmas Carol,” where we read:

“Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit’s nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of—

“God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!”

“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.”

Thus, as William Studwell observed, the carol “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” is the Christmas carol of “A Christmas Carol,” a notable distinction indeed. Ebenezer could have saved himself quite an adventurous night—if only he had heeded these words when he first heard them. (Studwell, who died in 2010, was an American librarian who was recognized as the foremost authority on the origin of Christmas songs and carols.)

Studwell also observed that it was most appropriate that Dickens chose this particular song, “for no other carol has had a stronger cultural effect on London and on England as a whole than the spiritual piece which infringed on Scrooge’s grouch privacy.” Studwell believed that London, and its Waits, were probably the source of this carol in the fertile sixteenth century

Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan, from Barenaked For the Holidays (2004), ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings.’ Barenaked co-founder Ed Robertson is the male lead vocalist.

 

A Child of the Snows

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), in Poems (1926)

 

There is heard a hymn when the panes are dim,

And never before or again,

When the nights are strong with a darkness long,

And the dark is alive with rain.

 

Never we know but in sleet and in snow,

The place where the great fires are,

That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth

And the heart of the earth a star.

 

And at night we win to the ancient inn

Where the child in the frost is furled,

We follow the feet where all souls meet

At the inn at the end of the world.

 

The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,

For the flame of the sun is flown,

The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,

And a Child comes forth alone.

It is believed that Chesterton wrote this poem in order to fulfill a need outlined in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In Stave Three, near the end of the Crachet Family Christmas dinner, we read:

All this time the chestnuts and the jug went round and round; and by-and-bye they had a song, about a lost child travelling in the snow, from Tiny Tim, who had a plaintive little voice, and sang it very well indeed.

Unlike his specific reference to “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” in Stave One, this reference to a song about a lost child traveling in the snow is a mysterious one. No such song has so far been found in any collection of Christmas carols. Michael Patrick Hearn, in The Annotated Christmas Carol, wrote “G. K. Chesterton apparently realized this omission; in his Poems (1926) he included a verse, ‘A Child of the Snows,’ which might stand for Tiny Tim’s song until another might be found.” (New York, Avenel Books, 1976, 1989, p. 126, note 47).

‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,’ Kings College Cambridge, arranged by David Willcocks (2008)

 

References to ‘sing,’ ‘song’ and ‘carol’ in the staves of ‘A Christmas Carol’

 

In Stave 1:

Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit’s nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of–

“God bless you, merry gentleman!

May nothing you dismay!”

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.

 

Stave 2.

After seeing himself as a boy at the boarding school, alone during the Christmas holiday while his friends went home to their families, Dickens wrote:

Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again.

“I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.”

“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.

“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.”

The Ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its hand: saying as it did so, “Let us see another Christmas!

 

One of the earliest film adaptations of Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol.’ This 1910 silent film, an original Thomas Edison production, was directed by J. Searle Dawley for Edison and stars Marc McDermott as Ebenezer Scrooge, Charles S. Ogle as Bob Cratchit, and features William Bechtel, Viola Dana, Carey Lee and Shirley Mason.

 

Stave 3.

“Mr Scrooge!” said Bob; “I’ll give you Mr Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast!”

“The Founder of the Feast indeed!” cried Mrs Cratchit, reddening. “I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it.”

“My dear,” said Bob, “the children. Christmas Day.”

“It should be Christmas Day, I am sure,” said she, “on which one drinks the health of such an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man as Mr Scrooge. You know he is, Robert. Nobody knows it better than you do, poor fellow.”

“My dear,” was Bob’s mild answer, “Christmas Day.”

“I’ll drink his health for your sake and the Day’s,” said Mrs Cratchit, “not for his. Long life to him. A merry Christmas and a happy new year!–he’ll be very merry and very happy, I have no doubt!”

The children drank the toast after her. It was the first of their proceedings which had no heartiness. Tiny Tim drank it last of all, but he didn’t care twopence for it. Scrooge was the Ogre of the family. The mention of his name cast a dark shadow on the party, which was not dispelled for full five minutes.

After it had passed away, they were ten times merrier than before, from the mere relief of Scrooge the Baleful being done with. Bob Cratchit told them how he had a situation in his eye for Master Peter, which would bring in, if obtained, full five-and-sixpence weekly. The two young Cratchits laughed tremendously at the idea of Peter’s being a man of business; and Peter himself looked thoughtfully at the fire from between his collars, as if he were deliberating what particular investments he should favour when he came into the receipt of that bewildering income. Martha, who was a poor apprentice at a milliner’s, then told them what kind of work she had to do, and how many hours she worked at a stretch, and how she meant to lie abed to-morrow morning for a good long rest; to-morrow being a holiday she passed at home. Also how she had seen a countess and a lord some days before, and how the lord was much about as tall as Peter; at which Peter pulled up his collars so high that you couldn’t have seen his head if you had been there. All this time the chestnuts and the jug went round and round; and by-and-bye they had a song, about a lost child travelling in the snow, from Tiny Tim, who had a plaintive little voice, and sang it very well indeed.

The next visits by the Ghost of Christmas Present.

And now, without a word of warning from the Ghost, they stood upon a bleak and desert moor, where monstrous masses of rude stone were cast about, as though it were the burial-place of giants; and water spread itself wheresoever it listed — or would have done so, but for the frost that held it prisoner; and nothing grew but moss and furze, and coarse rank grass. Down in the west the setting sun had left a streak of fiery red, which glared upon the desolation for an instant, like a sullen eye, and frowning lower, lower, lower yet, was lost in the thick gloom of darkest night.

“What place is this?” asked Scrooge.

“A place where Miners live, who labour in the bowels of the earth,” returned the Spirit. “But they know me. See.”

A light shone from the window of a hut, and swiftly they advanced towards it. Passing through the wall of mud and stone, they found a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire. An old, old man and woman, with their children and their children’s children, and another generation beyond that, all decked out gaily in their holiday attire. The old man, in a voice that seldom rose above the howling of the wind upon the barren waste, was singing them a Christmas song–it had been a very old song when he was a boy–and from time to time they all joined in the chorus. So surely as they raised their voices, the old man got quite blithe and loud; and so surely as they stopped, his vigour sank again.

The Spirit did not tarry here, but bade Scrooge hold his robe, and passing on above the moor, sped–whither. Not to sea? To sea. To Scrooge’s horror, looking back, he saw the last of the land, a frightful range of rocks, behind them; and his ears were deafened by the thundering of water, as it rolled and roared, and raged among the dreadful caverns it had worn, and fiercely tried to undermine the earth.

Built upon a dismal reef of sunken rocks, some league or so from shore, on which the waters chafed and dashed, the wild year through, there stood a solitary lighthouse. Great heaps of sea-weed clung to its base, and storm-birds–born of the wind one might suppose, as sea-weed of the water–rose and fell about it, like the waves they skimmed.

But even here, two men who watched the light had made a fire, that through the loophole in the thick stone wall shed out a ray of brightness on the awful sea. Joining their horny hands over the rough table at which they sat, they wished each other Merry Christmas in their can of grog; and one of them: the elder, too, with his face all damaged and scarred with hard weather, as the figure-head of an old ship might be: struck up a sturdy song that was like a Gale in itself.

The Last of the Spirits, illustration by John Leech scanned from the original 1843 edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’

The Last of the Spirits, illustration by John Leech scanned from the original 1843 edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’

Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea–on, on–until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.

In the next scene, we have Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, together with his wife and their friends at Christmas Day dinner. During the recounting of this dinner, Dickens writes:

After tea they had some music. For they were a musical family, and knew what they were about, when they sung a Glee or Catch, I can assure you: especially Topper, who could growl away in the bass like a good one, and never swell the large veins in his forehead, or get red in the face over it. Scrooge’s niece played well upon the harp; and played among other tunes a simple little air (a mere nothing: you might learn to whistle it in two minutes), which had been familiar to the child who fetched Scrooge from the boarding-school, as he had been reminded by the Ghost of Christmas Past. When this strain of music sounded, all the things that Ghost had shown him, came upon his mind; he softened more and more; and thought that if he could have listened to it often, years ago, he might have cultivated the kindnesses of life for his own happiness with his own hands, without resorting to the sexton’s spade that buried Jacob Marley.

Staves 4 and 5: No references.

 

Source: Hymns and Carols of Christmas (the express purpose of which is stated on the home page, to wit: “This web site is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Here, the celebration of the Christmastimde does not mysteriously end at 6 p.m. on Christmas Day. Rather, you can celebrate the entire 12 days of Christmas—or even the 40 days of Christmas ending with the Candlemas on February 2nd. Indeed, here you can celebrate the music and spirit of Christmas all year round.”); God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen—Notes and A Child of the Snows

 

The title page from the original 1843 edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’

The title page from the original 1843 edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’