The holidays are almost here, and the phrase “Merry Christmas!” – or “Happy Christmas!” if you live in the UK – is in the air. I’ve always taken it for granted that these were how the greeting went in each place. But this year, I started to wonder exactly why. What’s the difference between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Christmas”? I thought my research into this would be brief, but it turns out that the word “merry” has a side you may not know about….
It’s a phenomenon that’s often observed when a language goes global: certain terms that are now archaic in the place it originated, stick and stay in new linguistic communities. As this professor suggests, that could be why “Merry Christmas” is what we say in America – we never updated to “Happy”. Wishing someone a merry Christmas is indeed the older greeting – at least as far as written records go. It first appears in a 16th century letter, and was also sung in the still-popular carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, which was composed in the same era, believe it or not.
But, intriguingly, this isn’t the reason for the cleft between the two Christmas greetings – or, at least not the only one. According to this in-depth article on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, “merry” originally had connotations, not just of joyfulness, but of drunkenness. In fact, in British English, saying someone is “merry” can still mean they’re a bit tipsy. “Happy Christmas” came on the scene in the late 17th century, and the two phrases were taken to mean more or less the same thing by most people, just like today. But some groups, like 17th century Puritans and 19th century British temperance movement followers, thought making the distinction was pretty important. Even so, the two phrases stuck in different places. Funny enough, “Merry Christmas”, the preferred phrase among modern-day Americans, was apparently made popular by Englishman Charles Dickens, in his immensely popular novel A Christmas Carol.
There might be another reason why some prefer “happy” to “merry”. As people on this forum argue, “merry” seems to have a more fleeting quality than “happy.” Even its original meaning was suggested a temporary state. Then again, as one poster points out, while it’s all very well to think of prolonging the spirit of Christmas, or, say, New Year’s, why do we wish people “happy” other holidays that really are only supposed to be fleeting, like Halloween?
The subtle nuances of these happy adjectives aren’t surprising; according to a 2011 study, English is a generally upbeat language, with a majority of our words registering as positive. Granted, the study’s results may not be the most feasible: sources were Google Books, popular song lyrics, New York Times articles, and tweets. Then, 50 people were asked to rank the words on a scale of positivity. So it is kind of limited and arbitrary. But since I feel full of good cheer right now, I’ll take it!
If you celebrate Christmas, I wish you a very happy or merry one – whichever you prefer!