Why do we greet "Merry Christmas” and not “Happy Christmas”?

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The greeting “Merry Christmas” dates back to at least 1565 and before the 18th century, “merry” was a far more popular word than it is today.

 Our usual greetings from January through November start with “Happy”, but have you ever wondered why we say “Merry Christmas” and not “Happy Christmas”? In fact, why is Christmas merry when no other occasion seems to be? After all, you don’t wish people a Merry Birthday, Merry Diwali or Merry New Year?

The greeting “Merry Christmas” dates back to at least 1565, in which year the author of the Hereford Municipal Manuscript wrote “And thus I commit you to god, who send you a merry Christmas & many.” Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, pushed it forward, as did industrialization: The first commercially sold Christmas card (also printed in 1843) contained the salutation “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You,” which depicted a prosperous family framed by images of people feeding and clothing poor people.  

In Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” for example, Christmas is mildly merry – the characters look forward to the pleasures of their Christmas pudding – but the holiday is also meant to be a time for self-reflection and charity.  Dickens’s characters use the phrase “Merry Christmas”.

However, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth is said to prefer “happy” to “merry” because she dislikes “merry’s” connotation of boisterousness, even slight intoxication. Thereafter, only the British Royals and the Brit upper-class stuck to the idea that there was something vulgar about the word and the state of being merry, even in its milder incarnation. 

Before the 18th century, “merry” was a far more popular word than it is today. The first written record of someone using “Merry Christmas” comes from a 1534 letter from a bishop to royal minister Thomas Cromwell. However, with time, now “Merry” and not “Happy” Christmas seems soothing to the ears. Happy denotes a more sober form of celebration, while merry has the childlike wilderness and unrestrained happiness associated with it.


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