Holiday greetings are pretty standard across the board. Happy Birthday. Happy Hanukkah. Happy Holidays. But then you get to Christmas. To wish someone well at Christmas, some people say merry and others say happy. I have long been curious about why the alternative exists in such a small segment of the world’s population. Thus, in preparation for this year’s holiday madness, I decided to do a little research.
I have found a number of suppositions in my research (and I’ve tried to use what appear to be legitimate resources, though the research was done on a very small scale). According to the Dialect Blog, “Merry Christmas” dominated England and the writer points out that Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, utilizes the phrase, “Merry Christmas.” The popularity of “Merry Christmas” wains in England for some reason in the latter portion of the 19th century. Then, Queen Elizabeth II openly embraced the use of happy by wishing her subjects a “Happy Christmas” in her radio broadcasts (Dialect Blog). The author of the Dialect Blog post does not offer a reason for Queen Elizabeth’s preference for Merry Christmas and neither does the resource he credits (The Phrase Finder). But he does claim that this is possibly a reason why the English population has embraced the use of “Happy Christmas” more so than “Merry Christmas.”
Another layer to the discussion is the association of the word merry with drunken revelry. Perhaps Queen Elizabeth II found the association of merry with drinking to be distasteful in affiliation with a holiday that is particularly religious for a certain segment of the population. Thus, she chose to embrace “Happy Christmas” instead. Who knows. But, according to the World English Dictionary (which can be seen if you scroll down the dictionary.com definition for merry), an informal British definition of the word merry is “slightly drunk.” The Cambridge Dictionaries online also has an alternative definition for the word merry. According to this resource, merry is a polite way of describing someone as slightly drunk. I find this way of describing someone’s inebriation to be somewhat adorable and may adopt it for future uses. I’m sure many of my American English-speaking counterparts will be a bit confused for a while.
If you do an informal thesaurus search for the word merry, this is what you find:
Amusing, Cheerful, Comical, Enjoyable, Fun-loving, Glad, Hilarious, Jolly, Joyful, Joyous, Lighthearted, Lively, Mad, Pleasant, Star, Rollicking, Sunny, Winsome, Blithe, Blithesome, Boisterous, Boon, Carefree, Comic, Convivial, Entertaining, Facetious, Frolicsome, Funny, Gay, Gleeful, Grooving,
Humorous, Jocund, Jumping, Larking, Mirthful, Perky, Riotous,
Rip-Roaring, Rocking, Saturnalian, Sportive, Unconstrained,
Uproarious, Vivacious, Wild, Zappy, Zingy, Zippy.
A few of the above words can be interpreted in relation to the imbibing of alcoholic beverages, if you are so inclined. But the majority of them seem pretty free of alcoholic reference.
If you do a thesaurus search for the word happy, this is what you find:
Cheerful, Contented, Delighted, Ecstatic, Elated, Glad, Joyful, Joyous, Jubilant, Lively, Merry, Overjoyed, Peaceful, Pleasant, Pleased, Upbeat, Blessed, Blest, Blissful, Blithe, Can’t complain, Captivated, Chipper, Chirpy, Content, Convivial, Exultant, Flying high, Gay, Gleeful, Gratified, Intoxicated, Jolly, Laughing, Light, Looking good, On cloud nine, Peppy, Perky, Playful, Sparkling, Tickled, Tickled pink, Up, Walking on air.
It’s interesting that merry is a synonym for happy, but not vice versa. Additionally, from the above, I must note that intoxicated is a significant synonym for happy, at least according to this resource. Therefore, one can interpret happy as also being a word that could describe someone who is inebriated.
If you return to dictionary.com and look up the definition for happy, you will find the formal definitions lacking in any reference to drinking alcohol. But if you scroll down to the World English Dictionary portion, you will find a post-positive definition which states that “slight intoxicated” is an acceptable, though informal, definition for the word.
Personally, I find it a little surprising that a country that is much more lax about drinking than the United States possibly selected an alternative phrase for wishing someone well at Christmastime due to the connection of a particular word (in some circumstances) to drinking. The United States is the country that went through prohibition and continues to have a drinking age that is higher than the age you must be to enter the military or vote. The American attitude towards alcohol is one that fosters binge drinking, particularly by those populations that are deemed “under-aged.”
Of course one must also take into consideration the British attitudes towards drinking. I’m not British and have spent little time in England in my life, so I can’t comment on them specifically. But given the fact that merry has been replaced with happy, and, generally speaking, drunken revelry is not the most acceptable escapade in many cultures as a whole. This strikes me as a move in the name of political correctness, if there is legitimacy to any of this. The definition of the word merry that refers to being slightly drunk is specifically a British interpretation of the word and not one that is also recognized by speakers in the United States. I don’t recall anyone associating the word merry with drunkenness in all my life as an American.
It could just be that in England, the word merry, is firstly associated with drunkenness and happy is not. Maybe it works like slang. Different segments of the population associate a certain word with a certain activity or action and others do not. Again, I’m not British so I don’t really know. Due to the religious significance that Christmas has for many people, it is comprehensible that some individuals felt a different word was necessary. But since happy is also affiliated with being drunk, the change (if that’s what it is) doesn’t really seem like it accomplished much.
If you go back to the very famous Clement Clarke Moore poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” published in 1823, the final line reads as follows: “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night,” (poetryfoundation.org). The interesting thing about this is the fact that Moore is an American. There is a controversy, however, concerning the authorship of this poem. Some people claim there is evidence that it was actually written by a man named, Henry Livingston Jr., a Dutch-American man and poet. But again, Livingston is an American. If you’re interested in learning more about this controversy, check out this NY Times article from 2000. Despite the popularity of this poem and the obvious preference of the author of this famous work, in the United States, “Merry Christmas” continues to be the standout.
Clearly the lines between merry and happy are a bit blurry, as is the history. The general populace may lean towards one or the other, but there are always individuals who insist on doing things their own way. You say po-tat-o, I say po-tot-o and all that. I hope you’ve enjoyed this very little research project and that it adds some intrigue to your holiday season!
P.S. Is it just me or does “Happy Christmas” sound more sophisticated? It must be the dreamy British accents!