Merry Christmas: The History Behind the Beloved Phrase

Christmas sign

Merry Christmas is a phrase meant to impart good wishes for a happy Christmas holiday. Individuals joyfully exchange the holiday greeting from the day after Thanksgiving to the day of Christmas. Some Christian faiths celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas and use the phrase until that twelfth day -January 6 (Epiphany).

Earliest Uses of the Phrase Merry Christmas

According to the British website The Phrase Finder, the use of the seasonal salutation "Merry Christmas" dates as far back as 1565. The site states that the phrase is found in The Hereford Municipal Manuscript that states, "And thus I comytt you to god, who send you a mery Christmas & many."

First Christmas Card and Merry Christmas

The BBC reports that while the first Christmas card was most likely German, the one that gets the credit for starting the tradition was the brainchild of Sir Henry Cole. A decade before he was knighted for organizing the 1851 Great Exhibition and being one of founders of the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, 1852), Henry Cole worked in the Public Record Office.

In 1840, being too busy to send out the traditional Christmas letters, he hired acclaimed artist John Calcott Horsley to design a card with the printed words "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year To You". In 1843, 1,000 cards were commissioned and sold commercially for a shilling a piece. These are the first recorded mass-produced Christmas cards.

First Literary Uses of the Phrase

The phrase gained popularity when it was used in Christmas stories, especially Charles Dickens' s A Christmas Carol published in 1843. Dickens used the phrase Merry Christmas several times in his book.

The Night Before Christmas or Twas the Night Before Christmas was first published in 1823 anonymously as A Visit from St. Nicholas. Twenty years later the poem was attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, American Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature and Divinity and Biblical Learning at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York City. There have been numerous versions of this famous Christmas poem.

The original version used the English favored phrase of "Happy Christmas to all" but this was changed to "Merry Christmas to all" after the phrase became predominant in the United States.

Retail Stores Stop Using Phrase Merry Christmas

In the modern world, Merry Christmas is sometimes considered an inappropriate holiday greeting since it has a Christian origin. People who celebrate Hanukah, Kwanza, and other non-Christian religions, or who have no chosen religion, often find the term offensive or exclusive. In fact, some retailers have gone out of their way to keep from offending any of their non-Christian customers by banning the phrase from advertising and their employees for using the phrase with customers.

In 2005, this decision by retailers to no longer use the phrase "Merry Christmas" became national news. Sears, Kmart, and Kohl's announced that they were no longer using the phrase "Merry Christmas" in their advertising and several discount stores followed suit, such as Wal-Mart, Costco, and Target, and other retail chains, opting for the neutral phrase of "Happy Holidays".

Companies sending out Christmas cards have also chosen to forego the Merry Christmas greeting for a more inclusive one, such as "Season's Greetings," "Happy Holidays," "Holiday Greetings," "Best Wishes" or simply "Happy New Year."

Who Decided to Phase Out the Phrase

It's impossible to point a finger at the one individual, group, business, or political faction that started the move to phase out the common use of the greeting, "Merry Christmas". It's clear by the November 27, 2012 Rasmussen Reports publication of the results of a national telephone survey that perhaps it wasn't the general public demanding the change. In fact, the survey indicated that "68% of American Adults prefer Merry Christmas. Just 23% like Happy Holidays instead."

In fact, many non-Christians use the greeting and refer simply to the secular meaning of the phrase rather than the Christian origin.

Christmas Around the World

The phrase Merry Christmas is used throughout the world to impart holiday wishes. Knowing how to say the phrase in other languages can make your international friends and family feel special during this time of year.

Merry Christmas in languages around the world include:

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

Texas Passes Merry Christmas Bill

In 2013, Texas passed the Merry Christmas Bill that provides school districts the freedom "to educate students about the history of traditional winter celebrations, and allow students and district staff to offer traditional greetings regarding the celebrations, including:"

  • Merry Christmas
  • Happy Hanukkah
  • Happy holidays

Other provisions allow displaying symbols of these celebrations on school property.

Merry Christmas Considered Secular Phrase

Many people consider the phrase "Merry Christmas" and the Christmas celebration to be secular instead of religious, perhaps in part to the commercialization of the holiday. Whether you celebrate the religious or secular side of the holiday, "Merry Christmas" is a greeting that has been used for many years and is likely to continue being a popular seasonal greeting.

Merry Christmas: The History Behind the Beloved Phrase