In England today, you say “Happy Christmas!” In the United States, you say, “Merry Christmas!” Why the difference?
Believe it or not, the “Merry Christmas!” greeting we use in the US originated in England, more than four hundred years ago. It is first recorded in 1565 in the Hereford Municipal Manuscript, The author offered good wishes that God would send a “mery Christmas” to the readers.
English author Charles Dickens popularized the greeting in his 1843 story, “A Christmas Carol,” the focus of this year’s movie, The Man Who Invented Christmas.
The very first Christmas card printed for sale, also in 1843, used the words “Merry Christmas” as part of its greeting as well.
However, Queen Elizabeth II broke with her own nation’s tradition. She began wishing her subjects a “happy Christmas” in her annual holiday broadcasts more than 60 years ago.
People speculate that the Queen substituted the word “happy” because for many centuries the word “merry” had referred to people who were “happy” as a result of drinking too much alcohol. The Queen is reported to have moral scruples about overindulgence of any kind. Therefore, she does not encourage her subjects to make “merry” at Christmas or any other time.
Meanwhile, here in the US, we’ve completely forgotten that “merry” used to mean “intoxicated.” So, in the words of the song, “have yourself a merry little Christmas” – even if there’s no rum in the eggnog.
This post was first written on request of ESL teacher Cecelia Barker of Raleigh, NC, for use in her “Oral Production” class. The Grammar Queen was unfamiliar with “Oral Production” as an instructional topic and had to request an explanation.
The Grammar Queen learned that classes in “Oral Production” aid second language speakers in voicing a new language with the same nuanced sloppiness as natives — to elide words, for example, instead of pronouncing each separately and distinctly. Because the Grammar Queen speaks as a native, although writing as a professional, she withholds judgment about this casual verbal habit, to which she herself is not subject — the Queen is never subject — but is culturally habituated.