’Tis the season for holiday cards, and every time I open one from my English relatives, I feel a little bit of a shock. “Happy Christmas!” they proclaim. I understand using “Happy holidays” and “Season’s greetings” if you want to wish people well but aren’t sure if they celebrate Christmas, but to me, if you’re sending an actual Christmas card, it must say “merry.” “Happy Christmas” just sounds ... wrong.
Why is it overwhelmingly “Merry Christmas” in America, but “Happy Christmas” for many British people? The answer has to do with the connotations of these adjectives, which appear at first glance to be synonyms.
Both happy and merry can mean “characterized by pleasure, joyous.” But happy tends toward quiet contentment and merry toward revelry. Making merry includes festive activities such as dancing, eating rich foods, and playing games with friends. Merry can be a euphemism for “drunk,” though this use was often considered vulgar in the 18th century. In the Middle Ages, Christmas was firmly in the merry category. It was primarily a time of celebration, 12 days of feasting, singing, and other entertainments. The default term seems to have been “Merry Christmas,” as in the old carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
In the 17th century, Christmas was neither merry nor happy – it was illegal. Puritans in England and in America banned the holiday as licentious, a non-biblical holdover from pagan times. Christmas was to be a day of regular work and an occasion to remember God, not fill the belly.
By the 19th century, Christmas had regained its status as a popular holiday, but with its riotous element curtailed. In Charles Dickens’s 1843 classic “A Christmas Carol,” for example, Christmas is mildly merry – the characters look forward to the pleasures of their Christmas pudding – but the holiday is also meant to be a time for self-reflection and charity. Dickens’s characters use the phrase “Merry Christmas,” as did the first Christmas card, which depicts a prosperous family framed by images of people feeding and clothing poor people.
It would probably be “Merry Christmas” to all now, if not for the stubbornness of the British upper classes. They clung to the idea that there was something vulgar about the word and the state of being merry, even in its milder incarnation.
When King George V gave the first royal Christmas message in 1932, he wished his subjects a “Happy Christmas,” and Queen Elizabeth II continues to do so every year. Perhaps as a result of the royal preference, happy overtook merry in Britain during the 1930s, although merry is making a comeback there today.
So to those who celebrate, Happy Merry Christmas!