Letter from Felixstowe: Happy (as distinct from) Merry Christmas

Christmas cake made by the hostess with the mostest

Christmas cake made by the hostess with the mostest

On our way into church this morning, Clive and I walked a few steps beside an elderly couple.

I greeted them with a bright ‘Merry Christmas!’

The gentleman turned to me and said, ‘HAPPY Christmas.’ His emphasis on ‘Happy’ was not at all happy but more lecture-hall stern and didactic.

Once inside, we noticed virtually everyone greeted each other with ‘Happy Christmas.’

I love the expression ‘Happy Christmas’ and first started using it when we moved to Australia in 1995. There I used it more or less interchangeably with ‘Merry Christmas’. Greeting cards also used one or the other, with both widely available.

This afternoon, at a beautiful Christmas gathering with dear friends, we learned that many people dislike ‘Merry’ because it implies one is (or has been) drinking alcohol in order to become merry. One friend recalled an aunt who would cross out ‘Merry’ on Christmas cards and write ‘Happy’ instead. We never realised that another friend simply never buys cards that say ‘Merry Christmas’ because she doesn’t like what the word implies.

Perhaps this is or once was also the case in the USA? If so, I’ve never been aware of it and never recall my grandparents or anyone I knew disliking the term ‘Merry Christmas’.  Quite the contrary: ‘Merry Christmas’ was/is a lovely expression, specifically recognising the Christian holiday as opposed to the more generic ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Season’s Greetings’.

I’m not sure if this is an(other) instance of being separated by a common language or perhaps a generational preference, or maybe a combination of the two. If I see the gentleman from church on Christmas Day next year, I’ll be sure to greet him with a bright ‘Happy Christmas’.

I hope all who celebrate had a very happy merry Christmas.

Opening presents on Christmas Day

Opening presents on Christmas Day

Cheers and thanks for reading. We’ll be hopping on the Eurostar early next week. Next week’s letter will be New Year’s Day 2015 from Paris.

7 Responses

  1. The OED tells us that “merry” is one of the oldest words in the English language and lists many usages that go back to OE. In the early 18th century, Jonathan Swift wished a friend a merry Christmas and a happy new year. By the 19th century Tennyson made reference to merry and partying with alcohol and Dickens wrote in The Christmas Carol “they wished each other merry Christmas in their can of grog.”

    In the 18th century as people emigrated to the U.S., they brought their language with them and due to the isolation imposed by the Atlantic Ocean, usages often “froze.” Thus in American English “merry” still means something like full of joy or part of a seasonal expression. I must admit that often on campus my greeting has switched to “happy holidays,” although I try to use “merry Christmas” when I’m with other friends or out in town.

  2. I think I have used the expressions ‘Happy Christmas’ and ‘Merry Christmas’ interchangeably throughout my life without any associations with drink. ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’ avoids repetition.
    Wishing both of you just that 🙂

  3. I think this is another case of being separated by a common language. In any event, the gentleman could have been more gracious to you, who was only wishing him well!! Merry Christmas to you, and Happy Christmas to you in England!!

  4. Eleanor, yes to me ‘merry’ means happy and joyful, not tipsy from drink … as far as greeting others during the season in the U.S., one of my Facebook commenters said soon she’ll just be waving to people because she doesn’t want to offend anyone by saying hello! This rings very true with my own experience in the U.S. where I usually also say ‘happy holidays’.

    John, am thrilled that as a born-and-bred British person you’ve used both without any associations with drink! Yay. Me too 🙂 and hope you and Elizabeth have a very merry Christmastime and happy 2015 ahead.

    Kim — you really get to the heart of one of my reactions! IMO the old boy wasn’t very gracious at all! Grrrrr. I felt it was a rather rude, grumpy-old-geezer response to a friendly greeting. Oh well — maybe he wasn’t feeling well or is always that way. He was certainly not happy and joyful

    Cheers! (non-alcoholic)

    • Just back from New York City where we heard Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays in a huge number of different languages. Everyone seemed to enjoy exchanging greetings. Lots of fun to hear such a plethora of languages.

      I think language usage “correctness” is a matter of some importance to many people, especially older individuals. What is seen as incorrect or even inappropriate must be noted and that individual reproved by word or look. While the origin of the problem, as noted by several writers, is that chasm of a common language, an attitude of ‘when in Rome” was also likely to have been present in the perspective of the gentleman in question. Perhaps this wasn’t the first time he made such a “correction.”

      Gosh, I wonder what he would think if he were to read this discussion about your very brief exchange.

      • NYC sounds fun!

        I think the ‘stern disapproval’ of ‘merry’ is somewhat generational now, notwithstanding some continuing dislike/discomfort as per comments on this thread. Even in UK there are many lovely Christmas cards, including religious ones, saying ‘Merry Christmas’ with no connotation of drinking …

  5. On BBC Radio 2 ‘Popmaster’ this morning, a listener said ‘Merry Christmas’ and the presenter replied the same 🙂

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