Why Is Christmas Merry?

Thursday, December 05, 2019

I have long been perplexed about why we use the word “merry” almost exclusively in connection with Christmas. Think about it. When was the last time you actually said “merry” when you didn’t immediately utter “Christmas” right after it?

A Christmas CarolOh sure, there’s that line in the song “The Fountain In The Park,” “While strolling through the park one day, in the merry, merry month of May…” But that was written in 1884. And then there’s Robin Hood and his merry men, but the use of the word there has a much different connotation than the merry we use with Christmas. When it was first used to describe Robin’s men, around 1450, it was used to describe any follower or companion of an outlaw or knight.

So how did that word, which has fallen out of general usage, get such a close connection with Christmas? Linguistics scholars trace the first use of the phrase back to 1534 when the English Catholic bishop John Fisher used it in a letter to Thomas Cromwell, dated on December 22, to express greetings for Christmas. The English carol “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” is believed to have been written during that same century.

Three centuries later, in 1843, the phrase showed up in the very first commercial Christmas card and that same year “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens was published and he used the phrase extensively.

Merry ChristmasMeanwhile, the word “happy,” which we use for almost every other celebratory occasion, originates from the word “hap,” meaning luck or chance. It has the connotation of an emotional condition while “merry” is used more to describe a behavior, as in Bob Cratchit’s excuse to Ebenezer Scrooge for being late to work on the day after Christmas, “We were making rather merry yesterday sir.”

Some people do say “Happy Christmas.” But that’s almost exclusive to Great Britain, and can be blamed, largely, on Queen Elizabeth who, reportedly, refuses to say “Merry Christmas,” since she thinks that “merry” implies a sense of boisterousness and intoxication. And it’s possible that when the phrase began being used in Britain that church leaders encouraged people to use more conservative and reserved “happy,” they were British, after all.

And then, it may be as simple as trying to avoid redundancy when expressing greetings for both Christmas and New Year’s. After all, who wants to say “Happy Christmas and Happy New Year?”

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