‘Merry’ versus ‘Happy’ Christmas

Why is it overwhelmingly “Merry Christmas” in America, but “Happy Christmas” for many British people?

Yuya Shino/Reuters
A Christmas tree is seen in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (second r.) at Tokyo's Shinjuku business district, Japan on Dec. 6, 2015.

’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!

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to ‘Merry’ versus ‘Happy’ Christmas
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today