Saturday, December 19, 2009

Happy Christmas

Every holiday marked on the American calendar can be met with the greeting of “Happy” this-or-that (Happy New Year, Happy Valentine’s Day, Happy Fourth of July, Happy Halloween, Happy Thanksgiving), with the exception of one – Christmas. Because “happy” is also a synonym for “merry” this difference really irks me. What makes Christmas so special?

The current definition of “merry” is generally “cheerful and lively” (according to Oxford), but a second meaning of the term is “slightly drunk” and “merrymaking” is defined as “lively celebration.” All of these definitions, including that of drunkenness, are generally true of Christmas.

However, the original meaning of “merry” (or “merrie” as they spelled it in the England of the Middle Ages) was “pleasing and delightful,” which is obviously a more toned-down version of festivities. Early uses of the world “merry” included “make merry” (1300), “Merry England” (1400) and the “merry month of May” (1560’s).

One of the first documented uses of the word “merry” in reference to Christmas was in 1565 when it appeared in a publication entitled the Hereford Municipal Manuscript: “And thus I comytt you to god, who send you a mery Christmas and many.”

The phrase “Merry Christmas” came into more common usage in the 1840’s when it appeared widely on the first commercially available Christmas card and placed prominently in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. At this time, the word “merry” started to take on some of its modern connotations, including that of drunkenness.
It has been said, and recorded by Paul Burell in A Royal Duty that Queen Elizabeth II prefers to greet her subjects with “Happy Christmas” because the word "merry" implies disorderly drunkenness. Clearly, she is still stuck in an earlier era.

Another naysayer I would avoid wishing a “Merry Christmas” (besides over-secularized individuals who insist on “Happy Holidays”) would be a gentleman named David J. Meyer from Beaver Dam, WI. He claims that when someone is wishing him a “Merry Christmas” they are literally saying “Merry death of Christ!” He also believes that when Santa says “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas,” the jolly old man is “mocking and laughing at the suffering and bleeding” of Jesus Christ.

It seems that the phrase "Merry Christmas" is generally preferred when it is known that the receiver is Christian or celebrates Christmas (with the exception of Mr. Meyer, or course). At the same time, nonreligious people use the greeting in reference to the secular aspects of Christmas rather than the birth of the Christ child. Happily, it appears that people in the United Kingdom and Ireland use another phrase alongside “Merry Christmas."

You guessed it – “Happy Christmas!”

Links of Interest

The Phrase Finder: Christmas words and phrases

Collins Language blog: Christmas etymology

Wikipedia: Holiday Greetings

Last Trumpet Ministries International: The True Meaning of Christ-Mass(please don't take this one seriously)

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