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What makes Christmas merry? A brief history of yuletide adjectives

From Happy Easter to Happy Halloween to countless Happy Birthdays, our felicitations hardly vary from one celebration to the next. Christmas is the notable exception, with the dominant descriptor being Merry. We wish our friends a Merry Christmas but a Happy New Year. Is there any difference?

Not everyone’s Christmas is merry. Happy Christmas has its partisans too, but they are geographically restricted. According to the Oxford English Corpus, Irish Christmases are far more happy than merry. A significant minority of British Christmases are also happy, but American and Australian Christmases aren’t very happy at all. These geographic distinctions were not always so strong. The urtext of American yuletide, Clement C. Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, closes with the lines:

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight —
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

However, in the nearly two centuries since this first appeared, “happy” has fallen so thoroughly out of use as a descriptor of Christmas in the US the famous last line is now often quoted with “merry” instead.

Christmas greetings from the Tower of London

Merry Christmas is hardly a newcomer. It is actually the earlier of the two phrases by more than a century. In 1534, it is attested in the exceptionally un-jovial environs of the Tower of London, in a letter from the condemned bishop John Fisher to Henry VIII’s trusted minister Thomas Cromwell. It is difficult not to read irony in his closing lines to a man who orchestrated his imprisonment: “And thus our Lord send yow a mery Christenmas, and a comfortable to yowr hearts desyer.” More festively, the English West Country Christmas carol “We wish you a Merry Christmas” is also thought to date to the 16th century. It is tempting to give the refrain of that ubiquitous song some of the credit for the common distinction between a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Have yourself a happy and sober holiday

Happy Christmas, then, is the interloper. Analysis of historical databases shows that, Ireland aside, Merry Christmas has always been much more common than this later phrase, which first came on the scene in the 17th century. The earliest examples of Happy Christmas refer more to joyousness at the birth of Christ than to the gaiety of the festival celebrating it, as in a 1676 reference to “The voice of truth, the Angel of peace who giving himselfe vnto us, gave the first happy Christmasse, and peace on earth to men of good will.”  By the 19th century, though, as shown in Moore’s poem, Happy Christmas was typically just a synonym of Merry Christmas, and they were often used interchangeably.

However, happy got a boost in the latter part of the century, when the temperance movement, especially in England, began to emphasize a semantic distinction between Merry Christmas and Happy Christmas, with use of the former being discouraged because of its association with alcoholic revelry. The following dialogue appears in an 1872 publication of the Band of Hope movement:

Annie: I hope you will have a happy Christmas, whatever you may mean by a merry one.
Mary: I mean what I say. What do you mean by a merry Christmas?
Annie: Well, many people understand it to mean a jovial, drunken Christmas. They cannot spend the day without using intoxicating liquors; but I don’t believe in them, and I hope I never shall.

1873 Onward Reciter 45

These suspicions were not unfounded. The word merry can be used in British English as a synonym for “tipsy”, and historically, the Christmas season was a time of intemperate revelry. Those aspects of the holiday were among the reasons it was banned by 17th- and 18th-century Puritans in both England the New England colonies, and they concerned the Victorian temperance movement as well. The success of the campaign for “Happy Christmas” in England may explain the greater popularity of that phrase in the British Isles to this day.

The rise and fall of merriment

Happy Christmas didn’t make the same inroads in the United States, and in the early 20th century, its use began to decline. For example the usage of Happy Christmas in the New York Times peaked in the 1920s, with Merry Christmas solidifying its already dominant position. Mass culture probably helped to solidify merry’s dominance. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1844), which features many a “Merry Christmas”, was a popular annual tradition on US radio in the 1930s, and holiday songs like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas were heard in films as well as over the airwaves. However, Merry Christmas’s pre-eminence soon faced a new challenge, and its usage (again as charted in the New York Times) reached a highpoint in the 1960s. This time, it wasn’t just merry that faced competition, but also the word Christmas itself. It is probably no coincidence that use of Happy Holidays and Season’s Greetings started picking up steam around the same time Merry Christmas peaked, gaining popularity as an appeal to greater cultural sensitivity in a society becoming more conscious of religious and ethnic diversity.

In defense of “Holidays”

Holiday has been a controversial term in some quarters in recent years, described by some as a politically correct slight against Christmas. The singular holiday does smack of euphemism when used to modify a word which is only used in the context of Christmas (“holiday wreath”, “holiday tree”), or substituted for Christmas in a greeting. (This superficial inclusivity can often be ludicrous: my daughter recently watched an episode of a British children’s program which featured a man in red and white robe decorating a tree, carrying a bag of gifts, and wishing viewers a “Happy Winter Holiday”.) But in phrases like “holiday recipes”, it usefully encompasses latkes as well as gingerbread, and when used as a seasonal greeting, “Happy Holidays” is an apt acknowledgement of what is in the United States a full two months of overindulgent celebration, beginning with Thanksgiving, spanning December’s multitudinous offerings, and ending arguably not with the New Year, but with the Super Bowl in early February. It may not be idiomatic, but why not make merry for them all?

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