Q&A: Merry Christmas vs Happy Christmas

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we are merrily singing happy Christmas carols!

Q: Merry Christmas?

A: Wait, is that a question?

Q: Yes, I want to know about the saying. How did it come about?

A: Ahhh, good question. According to the history books, even though we’ve been celebrating Christmas since the 4th century, it wasn’t until the 1300s that we gave it that name and the 1500s that we stopped making it all about ourselves and came up with Christmas greetings.

Q: That’s progress.

A: It was in 1565 that we saw the first written version of “Merry Christmas”.

Q: Did “merry” mean what it does today?

A: Not quite – it was somewhat blander, just meaning “pleasant” and not really jolly or jovial. That came later. Oh, and the first use of the double-whammy phrase “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” was in a letter by an English Admiral in 1699.

Q: It all sounds extremely low-key so far.

A: You need to understand that until the 1800s, this was a holiday that wasn’t really associated with family and happy times like it is today.

Q: So what changed?

A: Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843.

Q: Is that the one where Oliver Twist says “please sir, I want some more”?

A: Um no, that was Oliver Twist.

Q: Oh, of course. Then was it the one that had Nicholas Nickleby trying to reunite his family?

A: No, that was Nicholas Nickleby.

Q: Yes, right.

A: Anyway, so A Christmas Carol sparked an increase in popularity of Christmas – with its use of “Merry Christmas!” in a jovial way. And do you want to know what also happened in 1843?

Q: Um, moon landing?

A: Seriously?

Q: Oh sorry, that was silly. Everyone knows that was a hoax.

A: Ignoring that. In 1843, the world’s first commercial Christmas cards were sent. Emblazoned on them was “Merry Christmas” and the phrase really took off from here.

Q: Any other interesting trivia?

A: Well yes actually. The famous 1823 poem Twas the Night Before Christmas originally ended with “Happy Christmas to all – and to all a good night” but after 1843 many versions changed “Happy” to “Merry”…

Q: So, from then on it was all “Merry Christmas”?

A: Oddly, no. You see, the posh middle-class in Victorian England associated the word “merry” with being drunk. So they clung on to “Happy Christmas” – and it has remained the more popular of the two in Britain ever since. The Queen has only ever said “Merry Christmas” four times in over 60 Christmas broadcasts. “Happy” definitely rules the empire.

Q: But in the US, it’s “Merry”?

A: Yes it is. Although non-religious phrases like “Season’s Greetings” (originally “With the season’s greetings” from Christmas cards) and “Happy Holidays” has become increasingly more popular, despite some opposition.

Q: Who knew that saying “Merry Christmas” would have so much history to it?

A: We did.

Q: Okay fine; it was rhetorical.

A: Right. Well, just don’t write the shortened “Xmas” and you should be okay…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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