Have you ever wondered why in America we say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Christmas,” when “happy” is the wish of choice for other holidays?
Experts don’t completely agree on the why of this, but they have some good ideas.
First of all, the history. We can date the term “Merry Christmas” back at least as far as 1534, thanks to a surviving letter from bishop John Fisher, in which he wishes a “Merry Christmas” to Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. We don’t know if it was the most popular wish at the time, but we do know that it solidified in popularity during the Victorian era, largely thanks to Dickens.
He uses the phrase in A Christmas Carol no fewer than 21 times! And he also quotes from the carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in there…and did something rather funny in said quote. Apparently the original term was “God rest you merry.” As in, “God keep you in good health and happiness.” This, then, was simply something wished to the gentlemen. But Dickens changed the placement of the comma, turning them into “merry gentlemen.” A change that would have amused his readers at the time, no doubt. And certainly contributed to the idea of Christmas being a day for being merry.
It’s also worth noting that the very first Christmas card said, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you” on it.
The idea of “making merry” (versus simply “being happy”) also plays a role in the popularity of the phrase. For hundreds of years, Christmas was the time of the greatest celebration, marked by feasts and parties and games and whatever fun could be scraped together. So this was what people began to wish for each other–not just happiness, but “a good time.”
Some, however, thought it a bit raucous for their tastes…most notably, England’s royal family. “Making merry” was too low-brow and distasteful, so they began wishing everyone a “Happy Christmas” instead, and of course, others in England soon followed suit. “Happy Christmas” is now more common in England across the board…though I daresay there’s still plenty of merry-making going on. 😉