Q: Why do our British cousins say “happy Christmas” while we say “merry Christmas”?
A: You can find “merry Christmas” and “happy Christmas” in both the US and the UK, though Christmas is more often “merry” in American English and “happy” in British English.
Our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus show that “merry Christmas” is overwhelmingly more popular in the US, while “happy Christmas” is somewhat more popular in the UK.
Here’s a recent “merry Christmas” example from the UK: “Hundreds of well-wishers turned out to catch a glimpse of the royal family, with some calling out ‘merry Christmas’ as they walked past” (from a Dec. 25, 2017, report in the Guardian on the crowd outside Sandringham House, Queen Elizabeth’s Norfolk estate).
And here’s a recent “happy Christmas” example from the US: “So, this year, for the first time in a long time, this native will not return to the scene of the happy Christmases of his childhood” (from the Dec. 7, 2017, issue of the Chicago Tribune).
Some language commentators have attributed the British preference for “happy Christmas” to the use of the expression by the royal family in annual Christmas broadcasts. King George V began the practice in his 1932 Christmas radio message, written by Rudyard Kipling:
“I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all. To men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them; to those cut off from fuller life by blindness, sickness, or infirmity; and to those who are celebrating this day with their children and grand-children. To all—to each—I wish a happy Christmas. God Bless You!”
Queen Elizabeth II, who has continued the usage, concluded her 2017 Christmas TV broadcast this way: “Whatever your own experiences this year; wherever and however you are watching, I wish you a peaceful and very happy Christmas.”
However, the royal family isn’t unanimously “happy” in its Christmas greetings. A recent holiday photo issued by Kensington Palace was accompanied by this wording: “A new family photo—Merry Christmas from The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince George and Princess Charlotte.”
Kipling’s choice of “happy” in the speech he wrote for King George may have been influenced by the feeling among some Anglican clerics in the 19th century that “merry” suggests noisy, boisterous, or drunken behavior, while “happy” signifies a deeper, more loving enjoyment.
In “Happy Christmas,” an 1864 lecture, the Rev. Gordon Calthrop, a prebendary at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, says, “Now it is usual, I believe, to speak rather of a ‘Merry,’ than of a ‘Happy’ Christmas. But I had a reason in my own mind for departing in this particular instance from the general custom.”
“There seems to me to be a difference—a considerable difference between the thing signified by the word ‘merry,’ and the thing signified by the word ‘happy,’ ” Calthrop explains.
He says “merry” indicates “boisterous gaiety” and “extravagant demonstrations,” while “happy” reflects “the true spirit of this most blessed season” and a feeling “too deep to be very demonstrative.”
Interestingly, “merry” meant simply pleasing or delightful when it first appeared in Old English. It didn’t come to mean boisterous or tipsy until the late 14th century. “Happy” meant lucky or fortunate when it showed up in writing in the late 14th century. It didn’t take on the sense of pleased or contented until a century later.
Getting back to your question, “merry Christmas” was first used in writing in the early 1500s, while “happy Christmas” came along nearly two centuries later.
The earliest example of “merry Christmas” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Dec. 22, 1534, letter by John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, to Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII: “And thus our Lord send yow a mery Christenmas, and a comfortable, to yowr heart desyer.”
(The bishop, a prisoner in the Tower of London, asks Cromwell in the letter for better clothing and other necessities, as well as a priest to hear his confession. He was executed on June 22, 1535, for refusing to accept Henry VIII as head of the Church of England.)
The OED defines this use of “merry” as “characterized by celebration and rejoicing. Frequently in Merry Christmas! and other seasonal greetings.”
The dictionary says “happy” is used similarly “in expressions of good wishes for a person or persons on a celebratory occasion, event, day, etc., as happy birthday, happy Christmas, happy New Year, etc.”
The earliest Oxford example of “happy Christmas” is from a 1707 memoir by Frances Shaftoe: “I wish you a happy Christmas and New Year.”
However, we’ve found many earlier examples, such as this excerpt from a Dec. 20, 1688, letter by George Wheler, a canon of Durham Cathedral, to George Hicks, Dean of Worcester:
“I Send You this to express my hearty Wishes, That You may enjoy a Happy Christmass and New-Year.”
The linguist Arika Okrent has noted that “happy” is the usual adjective for expressing good wishes on a festive event: “happy birthday,” “happy New Year’s Day,” “happy Thanksgiving,” “happy Easter,” “happy St. Patrick’s Day,” and so on. She suggests in a video on the Mental Floss website that “happy” may be seen as a classier term than the rowdy, tipsy “merry.”
Classy or not, “merry Christmas” is alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic, though merrier in the US. We’ll end with the last of the many examples of the expression in A Christmas Carol, the 1843 novella by Charles Dickens:
“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”