Christmas Greetings: Merry Origins of Holiday Wishes
Why Do We Say “Merry Christmas”?
Most people know “merry” means roughly the same thing as “happy.” Even so, “merry” is much less common. No one wishes someone else a “merry birthday” or a “merry new year.” But, when it comes to the winter holiday, “merry Christmas” is the standard Christmas greeting. Why?
The precise origin of “merry Christmas” is unclear. One of the earliest known mentions was in 1534. That year, Bishop John Fisher used the term in a letter he sent to Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister. The English Christmas carol, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” dates back to the 16th century as well.
“Merry Christmas” gained in popularity in 1843 when Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. The greeting appears 21 times over the course of the story. It was this same year that “merry Christmas” appeared in a commercial greeting card, sent by British inventor Sir Henry Cole. It read, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”
Why Not “Happy Christmas” Instead?
So, some bishop and author decided to write “merry Christmas” centuries ago and it stuck? Yes and no. It was also during the mid-19th century that “merry” took on an extended meaning in England. Instead of representing quiet contentment, “merry” implied a more jovial, boisterous spirit. It was a time for revelry and celebration.
“Merry Christmas” greetings continue to be very popular in the United States. “Happy Christmas” is the most common of the British Christmas greetings, though.
British nobility and other people from the upper classes did not like the more outgoing and party-like meaning of “merry.” They had and continue to have a more conservative temperament. Thus, many people in the United Kingdom prefer to use the quieter and more restrained “happy Christmas” instead.
A Holly, Jolly Christmas
Why limit yourself to just “merry” and “happy” when you’ve got a whole world of adjectives! They don’t call us WordFinder for nothing. To capture the spirit of the season, you might choose to wish someone a holly, jolly Christmas. How’s that for a rhyming pair of joyous, descriptive words?
The turn of phrase comes from a Johnny Marks song. It’s titled “A Holly Jolly Christmas” (or sometimes “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas”). The 1964 version performed by Burl Ives is the most famous. The song was later covered by Alan Jackson (1992), Michael Buble (2011), Lady Antebellum (2012) and Jerrod Niewmann (2014) too.
‘Tis the Season
Let’s start with the first part of this holiday greeting. It’s not just some weird word. “‘Tis” is a contraction for “it is.” These days, we’d use “it’s” to mean “it is.” The term “‘tis” first popped up around 1555. It peaked in popularity around 1710 before slowly falling out of favor since then. You might recognize it from William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, for example.
Fun fact: The past tense of “‘tis” is “‘twas,” as in “‘twas the night before Christmas.” And remember that the apostrophe goes at the beginning of ‘tis and not the end. The apostrophe signifies you’ve dropped the first letter in “it.”
As far as “the season” goes, the term refers to the winter holiday season in general, and the Christmas season in particular. We can attribute this phrase to the Christmas carol, “Deck the Halls.” The lyrics go like this:
Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
'Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
The greeting draws attention to this merry time of year. Go ahead and be jolly to your heart’s delight.
What Is the Origin of “Happy Holidays”?
You might think the origin of happy holidays has to do with being more inclusive. After all, not everyone celebrates Christmas. Many holidays take place during the winter season. These include Hanukkah, Diwali, the Dongzhi Festival (Winter Solstice) and Kwanzaa.
As it turns out, though, “happy holidays” is also religious in origin.
“Christmas” literally means the Mass of Christ. “Holiday” comes from the Old English haligdaeg, which means “holy day” or “religious festival.” It’s a “day of recreation,” free from the toil of work. Christians have exchanged “happy holidays” for some time, at least as far back as 1863. It’s implied that the “holiday” in question is Advent, the four-week period leading up to Christmas.
Over time, as Christmas expanded to more secular celebrations, “happy holidays” also expanded. These days, it’s more universal, going beyond offering specifically Christmas wishes.
Just like it’s important to know where to put the apostrophe in “‘tis,” you’ve got to remember to include it in “season’s greetings” too. That’s because you’re literally wishing greetings of the season. And that’s the same “season” as the one referenced in ‘tis the season. It’s the holiday period that includes Christmas and New Year’s.
As far as the origin of “season’s greetings” goes, no one knows for sure. Records indicate that people were using the greeting as early as the mid-1800s. This includes a Xenophon Haywood poem titled “For 1836,” part of the “New Year’s Addresses” in Recreations of Leisure Hours: A Collection of Poems.
Today, many people say “season’s greetings” or “happy holidays” interchangeably, encompassing the many holidays of the season.
Peace on Earth
Perhaps you’ve seen this on a Christmas greeting card. The most likely origin of the phrase — especially since “and goodwill toward men” usually follows — comes from certain translations of the Bible. Luke 2:14 reads:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
On some level, you could say this call for peace is a call for the end of all war and conflict. This is also why it calls for “goodwill toward men.” It’s to encourage positive and caring interactions with fellow human beings.
From this foundation we find related Christmas wishes. Many greeting cards proclaim “peace and joy,” “joy on Earth” or “peace, love and prosperity.”
Merry Words for Happy Moments
Find the right words for just the right opportunities. Now that you know a bit more about the origins behind popular Christmas greetings and their meanings, dig into some popular subcultures too. Check out this essential list of New York slang if you’re visiting the Big Apple. Or, decipher those cryptic lyrics by learning some popular rap words, including examples. How’s that for a seasonal greeting?
Michael Kwan is a professional writer and editor with over 14 years of experience. Fueled by caffeine and WiFi, he's no stranger to word games and dad jokes.