The Old Christmas Carol With the Odd Comma
While most English-language Christmas carols are less than 200-250 years old, an early version of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" emerged in an anonymous manuscript in the 1650s (almost 375 years ago). The traditional holiday song subsequently appeared in print for the first time in about 1760.
This is an old carol with an oddly placed comma in the title—or so it would seem. Here's the reason for the quirk. During the bygone era, the meaning of "rest” in the song's context was “to keep or continue,” while “merry” was “great, mighty, or strong.” Thus, "God rest ye merry, gentlemen" means “God keep you strong, gentlemen.” Note that modern versions often omit the comma.
Either way, this traditional Christmas carol is a cry of hope and jubilation to stay strong because the Son of God has been born to save humanity from Satan's grip. Assorted variations appear over the years, referencing both the wise men and shepherds at the manger scene.
"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" remains an enduring holiday favorite and for that reason is recorded by many artists. Listen to the classic song as sung by a traditional choir, then compare it to a bevy of popular artists' releases before you decide who sang it best.
"Who Sang It Best?": Here's How It Works
With many artists singing the same Christmas tunes, the sleigh has become overloaded. Let's rank them and cross some off the list.
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with the traditional choir version (or the original, recorded version) of a popular Christmas song that has been covered multiple times. Then we present a set of contenders—artists who have released cover versions in any genre. Some cover renditions honor the original style while others are reinterpretations.
Since the traditional choir version is typically considered "the standard," we don't include it in our overall rankings. We instead present it first for comparison, then highlight up to 14 contenders in ranked order. Vote on your preferences to determine who sang it best:
- Do you prefer the traditional song or a cover version?
- Which of the cover versions is your favorite?
"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" by The Choir of King's College, Cambridge (2011)
The organ gives off a formal vibe and the 30 members of the world-renown choir are lined up in the church. You can feel the weight of history and church tradition in this performance. The Choir of King's College offers three-and-a-half minutes of soothing harmony, but there isn't much heartfelt emotion.
The choir was originally founded by King Henry VI in 1441, and it is comprised of 16 boys, aged 9-13 years, plus 14 undergraduate men, and two organists. Their chief role is to perform at daily Chapel services.
Although the choir is calming to listen to, the words they utter are difficult to discern. One would either need to know the lyrics already or have the sheet music handy to catch precisely what is being sung. This choir version comes from Carols for Choirs (1961), a songbook that is considered by many as the definitive book of Christmas carols and hymns. The book's co-editor, Sir David Willcocks, is a former director The Choir of King's College.
1. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by Barenaked Ladies (Featuring Sarah McLachlan) (2004)
Consider this version an upbeat three-and-a-half minute Canadian Christmas party. Barenaked Ladies, the Canadian rock band best known for their 1998 hit, "One Week," offers up buoyant, folksy guitar strumming and earnest vocals. They are joined by the sweet chiming of fellow Canadian Sarah McLachlan, the Grammy Award-winning songstress best known for her hit 1998 pop ballad, "Angel." (Who can forget the pleading song used in those ubiquitous ASPCA donation appeals?) McLachlan's vocals add a light, glorious touch to this rendition of the holiday classic.
Together their version is an inspired, liberated one, and their creative approach extends to the lyrics as well. The song lyrics uniquely combine the first and second verses from the historic Carols for Choirs (1961) version and integrates a completely different song, "We Three Kings of Orient Are." This combination uplifts and enhances the upbeat vibe they aim to project.
2. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by MercyMe (2005)
A vigorous introduction kicks off MercyMe's rendition of this Christmas carol, bestowing an air of high drama. Heavy strings as well as accents of percussion permeate the song for emotional emphasis, while the lead vocalist conveys earnestness and an aching to share the Biblical story celebrated by the song.
MercyMe's first two stanzas are from The Beauties of the Magazines (1775), but the group adds a third stanza based on lyrics from "Joy to the World":
Joy to the world
For Christ our Lord has finally come
Let every heart receive its newborn King.
Towards the end of this superbly complex three-and-a-half minute version, a backing choir effectively rises then falls. They perform snippets of "Carol of the Bells," taking the tune to its high energy conclusion before the ending. MercyMe is a Christian rock band best known for its 2001 adult contemporary and pop crossover song, "I Can Only Imagine."
3. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by Brett Eldredge (2021)
They don't call Brett Eldredge "Mr. Christmas" for nothin'. In this classy, jazz-infused version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," an introduction consisting of a brief brass instrumental gives way to the singer's calm, commanding salute of the visitors to the nativity.
During his three-and-a-half minute musical offering, Eldredge's tone transitions from close-vested serenity to a demeanor that is perkier and more positive. The result is a mild, partylike atmosphere that tastefully celebrates the Biblical Magi who ventured so far to meet the newborn Savior.
Elderdge's version is just the right tempo. It merrily picks up momentum before settling down to rest. Nothing in this song gives away that he's a country singer. Lyrics are from Carols for Choirs (1961). The song appears on the musician's second Christmas album.
4. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by Peter Hollens (Featuring The Hound + The Fox) (2018)
This minimalist three minute offering by Peter Hollens and company opens with such soft serenity. There is gentle glorification of the Christ child born on Christmas Day, plus heartfelt appreciation of the shepherds who have traveled so far to be with Him. Pleasant, controlled harmony so as not to wake the manger crowd emerges and is followed by a voice that could only belong to an angel.
But there's the interruption of snapping (seriously, why?) and the singing becomes way too loud (even the angel's), particularly considering the weary state of the shepherds. Keep it down!
Although the vocals are excellent, the sudden crescendo is off putting, like these talented folks couldn't figure out an approach to the song (loud or soft?) and they decided, "Hey, let's do both!" Sorry, but it doesn't quite work.
Lyrically, the first and fourth stanza are adapted from The Beauties of the Magazines (1775), while the second and third stanzas are from Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, W. B. Sandys (1833). Peter Hollens is a classically-trained vocalist who has appeared on NBC's a capella reality competition show, The Sing-Off. He boasts a successful YouTube channel with approximately 2.5 million subscribers.
5. "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" by Mariah Carey (1994)
I was looking for diva songbird Mariah Carey to take us to church on this one given her voice of gossamer. Unfortunately, she sold us a little short with this ever-so-brief version.
The Songbird Supreme launches this tune with vocals as sweet as cotton candy before being joined by background singers. They haven't even started to wind up before this one-minute-and-20-second version of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is suddenly done.
Wait! There has to be more to it than that! Please don't leave us hanging, Mariah! The usual first stanza, borrowed from Carols for Choirs (1961), is repeated twice with no additional lyrics. Known as the "Queen of Christmas," the Grammy Award-winning diva received the World Music Award for the Best-Selling Pop Female Artist of the Millennium.
6. "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" by Nat King Cole (1960)
At only a minute-and-a-half, this jaunty version is brief and fast-paced with only three stanzas. The velvety voice of jazz and pop icon Nat King Cole is the star of the show. There's no unnecessary fluff, and the background singers provide an emotional boost.
Cole croons with crisp alacrity, sharply enunciating "com-fort" and "Beth-le-ham" in a way that make the listener's ears perk up. The song is over far too soon. Lyrics are borrowed from several traditional sources. The first stanza is pulled from The Beauties of the Magazines (1775); the second stanza comes from Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, W. B. Sandys (1833); and the last stanza is adapted from Carols for Choirs (1961).
Nat King Cole was an honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Additionally, he was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National R&B Hall of Fame.
7. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by Pentatonix (2016)
Whew! Call this the kitchen sink version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" because Pentatonix throws in a little bit of everything—not all of it bad, just a whole lot of it, all tossed into about two and a half minutes. There's hand clapping, staccato vocals, a dramatic bass drop, plus the lovely overriding highlight of Kirstin Maldonado's sweet voice. Then this hot mess o' Christmas ends with a rapidly increasing denouement. Overall, the song approach doesn't match its topic.
Initially, Pentatonix treats us to their cherubic a capella harmony during the introductory stanza of this 2016 version the Christmas classic. The pitch and tempo of the group's vocals are placid and appropriate at this point, matching the song's meaning. Unfortunately, however, Pentatonix doesn't stick with this approach throughout the rest of the tune.
Halos quickly go haywire after that excellent first stanza when the quintet takes a sharp left turn. There's a sudden, inexplicable shift to a much more rapid tempo, accented with mouth sounds (beatboxing), "dum dum," "bum bum," and "ahh." What's the big rush? The second verse is just a repeat of the first and the lyrics don't seem to warrant such sudden haste.
This rendition's lyrics are a creative mashup of two historical versions of "God Rest Ye Merry Getlemen." The first verse is repeated several times in the song and is borrowed from The Beauties of the Magazines (1775), while verses three and four are based upon the version appearing in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, W. B. Sandys (1833). Pentatonix is a pop-style a capella group that first rose to fame in 2011 after winning the third season of NBC's The Sing-Off. Since then, the quintet has won several Grammy Awards.
8. "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" by Bing Crosby (1945)
Flat and serious, here's your grandpa's version of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." This old fashioned 1940s rendition serves up an even tempo with clear enunciation (e.g., "com-fort"). The song is brief and to the point at just over two minutes; there's no monkeying around here.
The first and third stanzas are from Carols for Choirs (1961) while the second stanza is borrowed from Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, W. B. Sandys (1833). Bing Crosby was one of the most globally popular and influential musicians in the 20th century. He was known for many Christmas standards such as "White Christmas" (1942)—the best-selling single of all time—as well as "Jingle Bells" (1943),"Silent Night," and others (1935). However, this tune lacks much of that magic.
9. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by Toby Keith (2007)
You'll find none of the swagger that country star Toby Keith is known for in this rendition of the well-loved Christmas carol. He instead serves up two-and-a-half minutes of flat vocals that get louder then modulate but lack any real emotion.
A pleasant instrumental introduction features a soft country fiddle and is followed by the singer's deep voice which takes on a sing-song quality at points as if he is just reciting lyrics rather than feeling the song. Overall, his rendition is an adequate, forgettable effort. Lyrically, the first, third, fifth, and seventh stanzas are borrowed from Carols for Choirs (1961). The second and fourth stanzas are adapted from Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, W. B. Sandys (1833) and the sixth stanza is taken from The Beauties of the Magazines (1775).
Keith has achieved at least 20 chart-topping Billboard country singles. In 2021, the country star was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Donald Trump.
10. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by Annie Lennox (2010)
You can hand clap and drum all you want, but that won't necessarily add any comfort or joy to a holiday song. The piccolo at the very end of this three-and-a-half-minute rendition is the happiest portion of the tune. Of course, it's hard to go wrong with a piccolos if you want to sound chipper.
Rather than allowing Annie Lennox's pure voice to shine through, this tune seems to transform it electronically, muting it, covering it up through some sort of techtronic means. The effect is not to her benefit.
In other places in the song, the drums overtake her singing. I can only guess that this might be intentional, as the Grammy Award-winning songstress has struggled with a recurring vocal cord problem. Rolling Stone magazine has recognized Lennox as one of The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. We'll let it this one slide, but it's not unnoticed.
11. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by First to Eleven
Coming in at just under three minutes is this exceedingly energetic track. Sadly, Audra Miller's vocals are overrun by the heavy percussion throughout the song. Who has center stage here? The incessant hammering metal sounds give off tense rather than merry vibes. Thus, instead of celebrating the three wise men and shepherds perhaps they are being taunted or warned off here. (Wise men, watch that gold you're carrying!)
First to Eleven, a rock band from Erie, Pennsylvania, has built a following since their formation in 2009. The group has released a long list of cover songs on their YouTube channel. (For example, their cover of "Sweet Child o' Mine" by Guns n' Roses is phenomenal.) In 2021, First to Eleven changed its name to Concrete Castles when it signed a record deal.
12. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by Geoff Castellucci (2021)
That's a headturner of a deep voice. How low can he go? Geoff Castellucci is an a capella bass vocalist who appeared with the group VoicePlay in the season four finals of the NBC reality competition show, The Sing-Off. He has also branched off to release solo work.
This rendition feels a lot like shoes that don't fit. The song choice of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is a mismatch for Castellucci's remarkable bass voice. Although he exercised some of his incredible range to help balance out the strong presence of his bass vocals, there wasn't enough vocal diversity here. A little bass goes a helluva long way.
Ultimately, the singer's voice was overpowering and over-the-top, particularly with the way the he held onto key words like "astray" and "joy" for effect. Regrettably, it was just too much.
Lyrically, this version is a mashup, with the first and second stanza borrowed from The Beauties of the Magazines (1775), the third and fourth stanzas adapted from Carols for Choirs (1961), and the sixth stanza coming from Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, W. B. Sandys (1833). The remaining lyrics are loosely based on The Beauties of the Magazines (1775). But really, with that voice, who is really paying attention to the lyrics? On the positive side, if you like deep bass vocals, then listen to Castellucci's convincing cover of Tennessee Earnie Ford's "Sixteen Tons."
13. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by The Petersens (2020)
I'm just being honest, but this is why so many people hate bluegrass. Although the mandolin and banjo strumming add a certain homespun charm, five minutes of quivery vocal undertones are like nails on chalkboard. They had me crying "uncle" at a half minute in.
I'm pretty confident that neither Jesus nor the shepherds would want to be honored like this. Even my husband (who rarely makes the effort to criticize) remarked, "that's some tough stuff you got there." He's right. There's neither comfort nor joy in this version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. And the way "joy" is intoned at the end of the song was a true ear-ringer. Pure punishment if I've ever heard it.
The Petersens are a family of bluegrass singers from Branson, Missouri, considered upcoming and unique in the genre. Their song lyrics are a combination of two historical versions of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." The first, second, and fourth stanzas in their rendition are adapted from The Beauties of the Magazines (1775) while the third stanza is based on Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, W. B. Sandys (1833). God speed to The Petersens as they make their way in the world of bluegrass.
14. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by Rascal Flatts (2009)
The wise men are reeling rather than resting if they're listening to this Christmas carol. Although I'm usually a Rascal Flatts fan, count me out on when it comes to this cringeworthy country version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."
A grab bag of reasons justifies why this is just plain awful: over-singing, difficult high notes, rough transitions, nasally vocals, and a "sing song" quality. At one point, one of the singers even laughs. I suspect he knows what a dumpster fire this four-minute ditty is. How embarrassing.
Lyrics are a mashup of various historical versions of the holiday carol. The first, fourth, and fifth stanzas are adapted from The Beauties of the Magazines (1775), the second stanza comes from Carols for Choirs (1961), and the third stanza is based upon lyrics appearing in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, W. B. Sandys (1833). Rascal Flatts was a Grammy Award-winning country crossover band known for hits such as "What Hurts the Most" (2006), "Life Is a Highway" (2006), and "Here Comes Goodbye" (2009). Formed in 1999, the band retired in 2021.
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