God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, is one of the oldest English Christmas carols, going back at least 500 years. Not many people sing it today because of scruples about “Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Those words conjure up a picture of old English gentlemen at their ease, their merriment fuelled by great flagons of wine.
Except that is not what the words mean. For starters, there should be a comma between “Merry” and “Gentlemen.” I left it out in the first paragraph for the sake of making the point that most people are not aware that it is there.
One of the gifts my wife received this Christmas was a book recounting the histories of popular English Christmas songs. In telling the history of God Rest Ye Merry, the writer spends much time expounding on the original meanings of rest and merry (peace and joy), he even mentions the comma, yet completely misses the fact that these words are in the subjunctive mood. The writer is American, I would like to think that an English writer (i.e., one from England) would have done better, but I’m not sure if they teach grammar any better than Americans do.
Finding a grammar book that has much to say about the subjunctive mood is difficult. Mostly they say that it doesn’t really exist in English anymore. Yet it does; the text book writers are just trying to weasel out of trying to explain it.
So I am going to bravely attempt to go where the text book writers dare not go. First off, let’s deal with that word “mood.” It has nothing to do with a person’s emotional state; if it were written “mode,” as it is in French, and should be in English, we wouldn’t have nearly as much trouble understanding it. The indicative mood describes actions that are really happening, have happened or will happen. The subjunctive mood describes actions that one wishes would happen. It deals with possibility and non-reality – not in the sense of fantasy, but in the sense that we don’t know if the thing spoken of is happening or will happen.
Phrases in the subjunctive mood usually begin with “may” or “let,” though sometimes these words are omitted. When we say to someone, “(May) God bless you,” we are not stating that we know it to be a fact that God is blessing, or will bless, the person to whom we are speaking, we are saying that we wish for it to be so. Likewise, all the common greetings in English are in the subjunctive mood: Happy Birthday; Merry Christmas; Happy New Year; hello; good-bye. Good-bye is a contraction of “(May) God be with ye,” in which the subjunctive construction is clear.
The subjunctive mood is often used in prayers. Commanding God to do what we wish is not proper, but expressing our desires for our own needs and the needs of others is entirely appropriate. The Lord’s Prayer begins with three subjunctive phrases: “hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
Another way of detecting the subjunctive mood is the use of an unexpected form of the verb. “Be” and “were” are often found in subjunctive phrases: “It is required that applicants be over eighteen,” “If I were in your shoes. . . .”
The subjunctive is used in formal forms of speech: “I move that nominations cease.” Some common expressions use the subjunctive: “Come what may;” “Be that as it may;” “As it were;” “If only he were here.”
We can misunderstand some Bible verses if we do not recognize the subjunctive. The apostle Paul told Timothy, “Let no man despise thy youth” (1 Timothy 4:12). He is not telling Timothy to take forcible measures against anyone who would not show him proper respect, but expressing his desire that Timothy would not encounter any opposition because of his young age.
James 6:14 is another: “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” The “let” in this verse is not an expression of permission but an urgent wish that the sick person would ask the elders to pray for him. The preceding verses echo this form of speech: “let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay” (verse 12, this is pretty much a command); and “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (verse 13).
A recent Sunday School lesson ended with these words: “May we find life in believing God’s plan for our salvation, sustenance, and security.” I’m not sure if the person writing this knew it was subjunctive, yet the form is familiar enough that he used it correctly.
Going back to “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “rest” could be replaced by “peace” and “merry” by “joy” and the words rephrased to “May peace and joy be unto ye, gentlemen.” That is still subjunctive, though much less poetic, but perhaps more understandable to modern ears. Perhaps if we better understood the words we could sing the song next Christmas.