Why Do We Only Say “Merry” for Christmas?

And why do Brits tend to stick with ‘Happy Christmas’?
Merry Christmas?
Merry Christmas? / (Merry Christmas) vaiv/RooM/Getty Images; (Thought bubble) Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

For well wishes on all occasions, from general holidays like Halloween and Valentine’s Day to personal milestones like anniversaries and birthdays, English speakers are happy to let happy do the heavy lifting. But for some reason, we’ve decided that Christmas deserves its own bespoke greeting.

So, as Thanksgiving fades to black, the word merry shakes off the dust of its nearly year-long hibernation and emerges—along with eggnog, ugly sweaters, and jolly old St. Nick himself—into the glorious red and green glow of seasonal relevance.

Which leaves the curious with one question: How exactly did merry become the go-to modifier for Christmas—and only Christmas?

Merry Christmas, Ya Filthy Victorians!

It all began when merry arrived in Old English by way of Germanic. It essentially meant “pleasing,” but that definition expanded over the centuries to cover “festive,” “joyous,” and other celebration-related senses. The earliest known reference to merry Christmas dates back to 1534—in a letter from John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, to Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell. “And thus our Lord send yow a mery Christenmas, and a comfortable, to yowr heart desyer,” Fisher wrote.

Happy got a slightly later start, showing up in English around the 14th century from hap, meaning “good fortune.” Happy, too, enjoyed a broadening of its definition into the territories of pleasure and celebration, and it wasn’t long before people were wishing each other happy holidays. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Happy New Year came first in the mid-16th century, and Happy Christmas was in play by the late 17th.

picture of young church Christmas carolers in 'Aunt Louisa’s London Toy Books: The Robin’s Christmas Eve' published in 1867.
Merry young carolers in 'Aunt Louisa’s London Toy Books: The Robin’s Christmas Eve' published in 1867. / whitemay/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

For a while after that, merry and happy were both regularly paired with Christmas. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that merry pulled ahead in the rankings, thanks to some seminal Yuletide content. Charles Dickens peppered 1843’s A Christmas Carol with roughly 20 Merry Christmases, for example, and not a single happy Christmas. The first commercial Christmas card, which debuted that same year, featured Merry Christmas as well.

The phrase also cropped up in carols, including early versions of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” favored by 19th-century British kids. As one stanza went, “I wish you a merry Christmas / And a happy new year / A pocket full of money / And a cellar full of beer.”

Though not all Victorian Christmas traditions have prevailed, our modern conception of the holiday is still very much a reflection of that era—as evidenced by the fact that we’re still reading (or watching adaptations of) A Christmas Carol, sending Christmas cards, and listening to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Moreover, we’ve shored up the staying power of Merry Christmas by adding our own memorable references to the heap, from Judy Garland’s warbling “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Home Alone 2: Lost in New York’s iconic catchphrase, “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals!”

Using merry for other occasions wasn’t always unheard of; merry Thanksgiving and merry birthday continued making appearances into the 20th century. But the ever-swelling volume of Christmas culture containing merry has anchored it to the holiday in a manner that hasn’t happened with any other fête.

All things considered, it’s quite an achievement that the UK has managed to avoid merry’s monopoly and keep happy Christmas on the market. Semantics just might know why.

It’s a Jolly Holiday With Merry

Despite their definitional overlap, merry and happy aren’t mirror images of each other. Since the 14th century, per the OED, people have used merry to mean “boisterous or cheerful due to alcohol.” Merry Christmas, therefore, might be construed as a winking way to say, “I hope your cup runneth over ... with champagne at all the best Christmas parties, that is!”

You could argue that it’s vaguely sacrilegious, or at least in poor taste, to focus on booze-heavy revelry during a holiday that’s about as holy in origin as they come. And you certainly wouldn’t be the first.

“We make Christmas excessively merry, only by being excessively wicked; and we celebrate the festivity of our Savior, as if we were ministering the mad orgies of Bacchus,” one observer wrote in a 1772 issue of The London Magazine: Or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer. “But profligacy is the characteristic of this wretched age.”

And the next age, too: A North London reverend named Gordon Calthrop pointed out the debauchery often involved in a merry Christmas during an 1864 address that advocated for happy Christmases rather than simply merry ones. But his thesis was less about condemning merrymakers and more about questioning whether merriment equaled happiness. In Calthrop’s estimation, it did not.

A 19th-century illustration of Christmas punch drinkers by Randolph  Caldecott
A 19th-century illustration of Christmas punch drinkers by Randolph Caldecott. / ilbusca/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

“The boisterous gaiety which many put on, is oftentimes only a mask. It covers a sad—sad face,” he said. “And if a man tries to reassure me, or to persuade himself, by extravagant demonstrations of delight, that he is exceedingly happy, I always feel disposed to take the liberty to doubt the statement. True happiness is not a noisy and boisterous, but a quiet thing.”

You can write it off as a personal hot take that true happiness is never expressed noisily. But Calthrop’s opinion does jibe with the connotations of the words merry and happy. The former is typically characterized by some energetic and short-lived expression of cheer: laughing, singing, dancing, clinking beer steins, etc. Happy, meanwhile, often implies a deeper-seated and less fleeting kind of contentment—not to mention its original sense regarding good fortune.

This distinction could shed light on why people started wishing each other a merry Christmas and a happy New Year: as if to say, “I hope you have a really fun Christmas, and then after that I hope the new year brings you lasting pleasure and prosperity.”

One Happy Royal Family

Calthrop wasn’t the only 19th-century Christian who found something lacking in a really fun Christmas. Plenty of others contended that the notion of a merry Christmas was juvenile, irreligious, or just not a very accurate representation of how it feels to actually celebrate the holiday.

Merry Christmas is quite the term for the young, but it a little jars upon the ears as life goes on, and we know more of its troubles and sorrows. For myself, I confess that I much prefer the ‘Happy Christmas.’ It speaks to all of the birthday of our King,” one person wrote in an 1878 issue of a Gloucestershire parish magazine. 

These sentiments were evidently pervasive enough in the UK that by the early 20th century, the phrase Merry Christmas had gained a bad rap as an Americanism. “I send you of course the greetings of the season: Merry Christmas (a foolish American wish!) and a Happy New Year,” someone wrote to the editors of The Catholic Fortnightly Review in 1909.

Great Britain’s Happy Christmas crusaders, like baby Jesus before them, were soon blessed with a gift from a king. During the monarchy’s first-ever Christmas Day message in 1932—written by Rudyard Kipling and broadcast over the radio to the entire empire—George V wished everyone a happy Christmas. George VI took up the happy mantle during his reign, as did Elizabeth II after him. Their Christmas Day broadcasts made it abundantly clear that Happy Christmas was high society’s holiday greeting of choice. (That said, some members of the royal family do sometimes use Merry Christmas these days.)

All feelings about the merits of a merry Christmas versus a happy one aside, we can all agree that Crimbo has at least earned a hat tip for heading off merry’s descent into obsolescence. (Not to diminish the good work of the humble merry-go-round.)

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