Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Merry Christmas versus Happy Christmas

I've always been intrigued why the British say "Happy Christmas" and we in the US say "Merry Christmas." An internet search revealed that, prior to the 1830s, “Merry Christmas” was the more popular salutation. The term “Merry Christmas” dates to at least 1565, when it appeared in The Hereford Municipal Manuscript: 
And thus I comytt you to god, who send you a mery Christmas...

The phrase “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” appeared in a 1699 letter from Admiral Frances Hosier to Robert Smith, a storekeeper at the Deptford dockyards in Woolrich, England. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol solidified the phrase in 1843 when, at the end of the story, Ebenezer Scrooge wished Cratchet, “A merry Christmas, Bob!”
In terms of oral tradition, “Merry Christmas” was around in the 16th century West Country carol, “We wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”
A little tougher to track is “Happy Christmas.” It isn’t an entirely British phrase, however. In 1823, New Yorker Clement Clark Moore wrote the classic Christmas poem, A Visit From St. Nick/Twas the Night Before Christmas which concludes with:
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.
(It is interesting to note that, in some later editions, the phrase was changed to “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.” For what reason, no one is sure.)
By the late 19th -- early 20th centuries, “Happy Christmas” had become the more popular phrase in England. Perhaps for the same reason Queen Elizabeth II prefers it. “Merry Christmas” implies drunkenness and a bubbling over of festivity.
The association of merriment with Christmas can be found as far back as Sir Thomas Elyot’s 1548 Dictionary:
.…as the vulgare people saie, Reste you mery.

That sentiment is echoed in the Christmas carol, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” first published in William Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern in 1833.
The word “merry” didn’t start out associated with revelry. It derives from the Anglo-Saxon word myrige which meant pleasant and agreeable rather than jolly. Or perhaps Happy Christmas gained in popularity for the simple reason that greetings in general begin with the word “happy” – happy birthday, happy holiday, happy new year. To say “Happy Christmas and a Happy New Year” just doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like the other. But as a stand-alone phrase, "Happy Christmas" is consistent with long-standing salutatory customs.

The First Christmas Card
As the above image demonstrates, the first commercial Christmas card sported the phrase, “Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year.” It made its appearance the same year Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published. Sir Henry Cole, a British civil servant who had no time to pen personal greetings to family and friends, commissioned the English painter, John C. Horsley to create the triptych card. One thousand of them were printed in black and white, then hand-colored. (Horsley’s card was based on the 18th century custom of schoolboys creating “Christmas pieces” for their families. This elaborately decorated stationery sported written messages that showcased the boys’ penmanship.)

But no matter which phrase you prefer—the one another Cole by the name of Nat so aptly crooned in 1946:
Although it’s been said
many times, many ways,
Merry Christmas to you.”
Or the great John Lennon sang in 1971:
And so happy Christmas
we hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young…
Wishing you and yours all the best of the season. And God bless us, every one!