‘Merry Christmas’ vs ‘Happy Christmas’: What’s the difference and why it matters | Festivals

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Once again, it’s time for the annual debate on whether Christmas is a “merry” affair or a “happy” one. But why make a distinction anyway?

Merry Christmas


It’s Christmas and once again it’s time for the annual debate on whether Christmas is a “merry” affair or a “happy” one. But why make a distinction when most holiday greetings begin with “happy”? Especially when both words effectively bear the same meaning. 

Dictionary definitions 

The Cambridge Dictionary, one of the most authoritative sources of meanings in the English language, defines happy as an adjective — feeling, showing or causing pleasure or satisfaction. 

On the other hand, the word merry, which Cambridge calls “old-fashioned” is defined as happy or showing enjoyment.  

Locating the debate – History and geography 

The greeting “Happy Christmas” is used prominently in Britain, while “Merry Christmas” is popular in the United States and other parts of the world. 

“Merry Christmas” has been in use since the 14th century, according to a dated letter that a bishop wrote to Thomas Cromwell, who was the Chief Minister of the then King of Britain, Henry VIII. 

It was also used in the 1500s version of the English carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

‘A Christmas Carol’

“Merry Christmas” as a greeting was popularised following the publication of Charles Dickens’ novel “A Christmas Carol” in 1843. 

Linguists say the word “merry” is more befitting of the spirit of Christmas than the word “happy”.

“Happy Christmas,” however, has not completely faded, and is still used in England. 

“Happy” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is an inner emotional state, whereas “merry” is a behaviour which is active and possibly even raucous. 

The Christmas dispute 

“If I become President, we will say ‘Merry Christmas’ in every shop,” former US President Donald Trump said in 2015.

And, after Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, his ex campaign manager Corey Lewandowski stated, “You can say ‘Merry Christmas’ again, because Trump is now the president.”

In 2015, roughly equal number of Americans told Pew Research that they wanted stores to say “Merry Christmas,” and that they didn’t care what stores said (with 12% preferring “Happy holidays” or “Season’s greetings”), according to a report by the Atlantic. 

The report further said that in 2017, less than a third preferred “Merry Christmas,” and more than half said it didn’t matter which greeting stores used.

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