God rest you merry, Gentlemen, is one of the oldest carols, dating back to the 16oo’s, or maybe even earlier, and the first known printing was on a broadsheet in 1760. Although it is still often sung at Christmastime, the language now feels quite archaic, and could do with a little modern translation. The word ‘rest’ in the opening line means ‘to keep or cause to remain’, and ‘merry’ once had a wider meaning including ‘pleasant, bountiful, and prosperous’. So I quite like the idea that the carollers are wishing that we the listeners ‘remain in merriness, with abundant and generous prosperity’. I also love the meaning of the word ‘comfort’ which comes from Middle English, and derives from the Latin ‘com’, ‘ expressing intensive or extreme force, and ‘fort’ from the Latin ‘fortis’ meaning ‘strong, or to strengthen’. (Other words using the root ‘fort’ would be fortress and fortitude.) Later the word comfort came to also mean giving physical ease.
So this Christmas, may I offer you ‘merry tidings of comfort and joy’ – ‘that you remain in merriness, with abundant and generous prosperity, and that you are strengthened and made joyful by the news that Jesus is born’.