The Grinch Critiques… Revisionist “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

This Christmas I… uh, I mean the Grinch thought he would get a few complaints off his chest about people who mess with the lyrics of old Christmas carols. To be clear, the Grinch is not unhappy with these carols themselves. The Grinch loves Christmas carols. It’s just that the Grinch doesn’t like what some people have done with them.

Sometimes there’s a not-so-subtle agenda at work, as when a lyric is truly mangled to be more politically correct (removing all references to men or the male pronoun, for example). Sometimes it’s a more innocent but still painful attempt to be “helpful” when it comes to a slightly archaic turn of phrase. Some more contemporary adapters have mistakenly thought they understood grammar better than the original writers, so, bumblingly, they actually make things worse.

One of Grammar Grinch’s pet peeves is a verse in one popular set of lyrics to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Unfortunately, some of his favorite musical renditions of this carol, from the Annie Moses Band to the Cathedrals, have a sadly corrupted version of one of the verses that hopelessly scrambles the grammar. The problem line is bolded:

In Bethlehem of Judah the blessed babe was born

And laid within a manger upon this blessed morn

To which his mother Mary did nothing take in scorn

Oh tidings of comfort, etc.

No, no, no! You’re making Grammar Grinch cry.

The line should read “The which his mother Mary did nothing take in scorn.” What seems to have happened here, as near as the Grinch can piece it together, is that some adapter looked at the original line and thought, “Huh. I’ve never heard that expression before. It must be a mistake. ‘To which’ makes more sense—you know like ‘taking offense to something.’ [Except it should be “taking offense at” anyway, but whatever–The Grinch].” But if you try to spell out the new structure, you realize how garbled it is.  “The blessed babe was born in Judah and laid within a manger, to which Mary took nothing in scorn… Wait, the word ‘nothing’ is just free-floating now because I’ve already established Jesus’ lowly birth as the object of her non-scorn-taking… oh, forget it.” You could say “I took offense at nothing,” or “X, y and z happened, at which I took no offense.” But it’s just grammar salad if you try to mix it together.

The problem comes in assuming that just because something is a little bit archaic, it must be incorrect. In this case, while the original is a slightly unusual turn of phrase, it’s not wrong if you parse it out properly. “Thwhich” is a reference to “the blessed morn,” and could be read as a compressed version of an old-fashioned phrase like “on the which day.” To translate into colloquial English while preserving the basic structure, “The blessed babe was born in Bethlehem and laid within in a manger on that blessed morn, in which his mother Mary took nothing with a scornful attitude.” Now, the word “nothing” has a purpose in life: It’s clearly the object of “take.”

So the moral of the story is the point the Grinch has made: Don’t re-write old stuff. Odds are, the original writer probably knew what he was doing a little better than you do.

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3 thoughts on “The Grinch Critiques… Revisionist “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

  1. Lydia

    I’m going to be a grammar grinch of grammar grinches. I’m going to argue that “the which” is an archaic usage meaning the same thing as “which” and that “nothing” is an archaic adverb meaning “in no way.” “In scorn” means roughly, “as an insult.” That would give us, “The blessed Babe was laid in a manger on that blessed morn, which [that is, his being laid in a manger] his mother Mary did not in any way take as an insult.”

    Even if I am right about all of these, Grammar Grinch in the main post is completely correct that “to which” is completely wrong and that the line should have been left alone. It already expressed what the meddlers thought it expressed without their changing it in the least.

    1. Aha! That was actually Grammar Grinch’s first instinct, which in hindsight he probably should have followed, but when he came upon this other interpretation, he suddenly got fixated on the idea that “nothing” had to be an object of something. However, on reflection, the Grinch agrees with you that this was borne of over-thinking. Compare with a phrase like “nothing loath.”

  2. Lydia

    Yep, that’s “nothing” as an adverb in “nothing loath.” If you google the phrase “by the which,” you get several hits in the King James version showing that “the which” was used to mean “which.” (In that case, it’s being used as the object of the preposition “by.”) For example, James 2:7, “Do they not blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?”

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