’Tis the season to be happy.
Happy New Year!
And a Merry Christmas to all!
Merry? What’s “merry” doing at this “happy” season?
It’s an anomaly, not just now but also the rest of the year. Consider our “happy” greetings on other occasions:
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Happy 4th of July!
and the most personal of all, Happy birthday!
So why is Christmas merry?
Did it come from Clement Clarke Moore’s “Visit From St. Nicholas,” the 1823 poem that started the present-day version of Santa Claus?
No, we all know St. Nick’s famous last words: “But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
A look at the notoriously unreliable, but still suggestive, Google Ngrams shows “Merry Christmas” ahead of “Happy Christmas” from the moment both greetings began to be used in English in the 16th century, though “happy” wasn’t so uncommon at first.
The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of “merry Christmas” as early as 1534 and 1565. Google finds it in a letter dated December 20, 1621 and published in 1655. James Howell writes to R. Altham, “I hope this Hilary Term to be merry in London and amongst others to re-enjoy your conversation principally, for I esteem the society of no soul upon Earth more than yours: Till then I bid you farewell, and as the season invites me, I wish you a merry Christmas.”
Google provides examples of “happy,” too. One is in a 1732 book of letters between two lovers, called Pylades and Corinna. “I wish you a happy Christmas,” Pylades writes on one occasion. Jonathan Swift was ambivalent; he wrote both “happy Christmas” and “merry Christmas,” as well as “happy New-year” and “merry New-year,” in his letters early in the 18th century.
It could be that “merry” was helped in its dominance by its use in Dickens’s Christmas Carol, in memorable passages like this rant from Scrooge:
Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!
But that doesn’t account for the ascendancy of “merry” over “happy” in the first place. And honestly, I can’t either. So this time I’m counting on Lingua Franca readers for help. Why do you think we say “merry” for Christmas?
And merry holidays to you all!