Merry Christmas: The History Behind the Beloved Phrase

Updated June 30, 2021
Merry Christmas sign

As far as holiday greetings go, Merry Christmas is perhaps the most well-known, with cards, banners, and advertisements shouting the phrase to unsuspecting bystanders from the minute the winter season begins. Unsurprisingly, the phrase's origins have been lost in the pop culture whirlpool, with people focusing more on any current Christmas controversies than linguistic history. However, Merry Christmas' unique connections to Puritanism, the British elite, and modern capitalism make for quite the thrilling Christmas tale.

First Documented Use of "Merry Christmas"

According to the historical record, the seasonal salutation, "Merry Christmas," has concrete origins that date back to as early as 1534. In a letter written by the imprisoned Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, to Thomas Cromwell and dated December 22, 1534, the lines "wishes him a merry Christmas" is included, implying that Tudor England was not only familiar with the term, but actively using the phrase as a seasonal greeting. A few decades later, in the 1565 Hereford Municipal Manuscript, an English admiral wrote the lines "And thus I comytt you to God, who send you a Mery Christmas." This shows that Merry Christmas, at the very least, appeared in the 16th century.

Merry Christmas Enters the 19th Century

There aren't many documented changes to the use of Merry Christmas as a seasonal phrase until the beginning of the 19th century, when the performance of Christmas traditions began becoming solidified across Europe and the United States. Charles Dickens had a significant hand in these practices as his enormously popular novel, A Christmas Carol, was published in 1843 and helped revitalize the phrase Merry Christmas among his avid readers while creating many of the Christmas traditions you celebrate today.

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol

In conjunction with Dickens' novel, the growing popularity of Christmas cards prompted a newfound way of sending holiday sentiments to those in distant places. This further kept the "Merry Christmas" of the holidays alive when Sir Henry Cole commissioned John Calcott Horlsey to design a Christmas card with the printed words "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year To You." The first commercial batch of 1,000 cards was released in 1843, costing a single shilling a piece.

The English Aristocracy Pushes Back

In much the same way that Puritans disapproved of the term, the English aristocracy and royal family have distanced themselves from the phrase, "Merry Christmas," preferring to use "Happy Christmas" instead. This stems from the historic connotations of the term "merry" which lean towards a certain raucousness that implies drunkenness and partying. Thus, the royal family continues to use the term Happy Christmas, as do a significant number of British people as well.

Merry Christmas in the 20th Century

With the rise of "Merry Christmas" as the proper greeting for the end-of-year holiday, the 20th century saw some push back from religious authorities against the term, rather wanting people to use "Happy Holidays" in its place as holiday is inherently a religious word, derived from an Old English word meaning 'holy day.' Yet, these religious communities couldn't compete with the growing capitalist center of the gift-giving season, and commercial advertisements including "Merry Christmas" meant that their efforts didn't stick. Therefore, Merry Christmas continued to be the number one way to offer positive sentiments during the holiday season for the entirety of the 20th century.

Merry Christmas Is Challenged in the 21st Century

While Merry Christmas is the most popular Christmas greeting, everyone hasn't always agreed with its use. In fact, several times over the years, various groups have campaigned against its use and attempted to have alternatives take its place.

Retailers Banning Merry Christmas Rumors

In 2005, the issue surrounding the ethnocentric, westernized ideas surrounding 'normal' winter holiday celebrations came to the fore, with significant retailers of the time like Sears, Kmart, Khol's, Wal-Mart, and Target, supposedly announcing that they would begin using "Happy Holidays" instead of Merry Christmas in an effort to be more inclusive to all of their shoppers. This has sparked an ongoing trend of Christian groups boycotting commercial companies who they believe are being anti-Christmas because of their inclusion of other winter holidays like Hanukkah and Kwanza in their advertising campaigns.

Media Outlets and Political Controversy

Unfortunately, every winter holiday season sparks a new round of partisan-based debates surrounding the 'policing' of the term Merry Christmas, with popular media outlets taking polls about listeners preferred holiday greetings. Ultimately, the debates are canon-fodder for greater political differences, though much of their legitimacy isn't based in any real populace-driven concerns over what terms are used to represent happiness during the holidays.

Merry Christmas Around the World

Whether you celebrate Christmas, or want to wish a friend from around the world a "Merry Christmas" in their own language, here is a cool breakdown of different ways to say Merry Christmas in various languages:

Merry Christmas wrote in several languages
20 Ways to Say Merry Christmas
Afrikaans: Een Plesierige Kerfees Indonesian: Selamat Hari Natal
Albanian: Gezuar Krishtlindje Irish: Nollaig Shona Dhuit
Cornish: Nadelik looan na looan blethen noweth Italian: Buon Natale or Buone Feste Natalizie
Danish: Gladelig Jul Japanese: Shinnen omedeto. Kurisumasu Omedeto
French: Joyeux Noel Korean: Sung Tan Chuk Ha
German: Froehliche Weihnachten Polish: Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia
Greek: Kala Christouyenna Portuguese: Feliz Natal
Hawaiian: Mele Kalikimaka Russian: Pozdrevlyayu s prazdnikom Rozhdestva i s Novim Godom
Hindi: Bada Din Mubarak Ho Spanish: Feliz Navidad
Hungarian: Kellemes Karacsonyi unnepeket Welsh: Nadolig Llawen

Merry Christmas Marches On

Despite its rocky past and continued scrutiny, the term "Merry Christmas" continues to be a popular seasonal greeting and is most closely linked with commercial assets like advertising campaigns and holiday cards. Thankfully, you're not limited to only using Merry Christmas if you find that it doesn't fit your personal holiday celebrations the best, but if you do, know that the phrase's interesting origins hasn't stopped it from continuing to march on.

Merry Christmas: The History Behind the Beloved Phrase