Why Do We Wish a Merry or a Happy Christmas to Each Other?
Historians and linguists can’t pinpoint for sure exactly why we tend to use Merry Christmas. The greeting dates back to at least 1534 in London, when it was written in a letter sent to Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell from Bishop John Fisher. Scholars also note the phrase was used in the 16th century English carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Merry Christmas certainly picked up steam in 1843 with the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. That same year the phrase also appeared on the first commercially-sold Christmas card.
Despite its prevalence in the United States and its historical underpinnings, Merry Christmas never gained universal support. For example, Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas ends with the words, “A Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night.” Each year, Queen Elizabeth also wishes British citizens a Happy Christmas in her annual broadcast.
In fact, Happy Christmas tends to be the preferred phrase for a significant minority of Great Britain. Why might this be? It could be the queen’s influence. A rumor has circulated that Queen Elizabeth prefers happy to merry, because the word merry, to her, carries with it a sense of boisterousness and even intoxication.
A linguistic comparison of happy and merry lends support to this theory. Early church leaders in Great Britain may have encouraged Christian followers to be happy rather than engage in merrymaking! In this sense, Happy Christmas is a bit more conservative and reserved than Merry Christmas, which conveys a more emotional, unrestrained celebration.
No one knows for sure why Merry Christmas became the more popular greeting in the United States. Some Christians believe it is a more fitting greeting, given the unrestrained and emotional response followers should have to a celebration of the birth of their Savior, Jesus Christ.