On Sunday, for the first time since 1951, people in the United Kingdom and around the world tuned in to hear someone other than Queen Elizabeth wish us all glad tidings. King Charles’ address was notable in another respect: unlike his mother, grandfather, and great-grandfather George V, who started the tradition in 1932, he did not explicitly wish us a Happy Christmas.
It is unlikely that neighbours in the future will casually wish one another “a Christmas of peace, happiness, and everlasting light,” and elsewhere, Charles has consistently wished his subjects a Happy Christmas. To many English speakers, especially in the United States, this sounds odd. In America, Christmases are meant to be merry. Linguistically, this divergence is unusual. The norm is for traditions to fossilise older language (e.g., ’tis the season), and Christmas predates A.D. 1776. So why the difference?
As they always do, the Brits claim theirs is the original article. Americans tend to agree with them. It would make intuitive sense, after all. But “Merry Christmas” is actually yet another instance where Americans have held truer to tradition than Englishmen back in the mother country.
People were wishing one another a Merry Christmas at least as early as the 16th Century. Take another look Charles Dickens’ beloved classic A Christmas Carol, and you will see that that version was still current in England in the early Victorian era.
Although “merry” and “happy” are basically synonyms, the subtle change reflects an major shift in how the holiday was celebrated. Traditionally, Christmas was more of a wintry Bacchanal than the wholesome family holiday we know today. Medieval commentators lamented that taverns were fuller than churches, which may have been a good thing in some cases, because one prominent tradition compelled drunken novice monks to steal everyone’s shoes, pile them up in the nave, and set them on fire. It is no wonder that Christmas was banned in colonial America, as well as in England under Oliver Cromwell; no American state even recognised the holiday until Alabama did so in 1836.
In the Victorian era, however, many respectable people decided that such merrymaking was an unbecoming way to honour the birth of our Saviour. On both sides of the Pond, Christmas became the wholesome family holiday it is today. To befit the new ethos of the holiday, polite people started to wish one another a Happy Christmas, the idea being that while “merry” drew on the merriment of past celebrations, the new Christmas was to be one of tranquil happiness.
Like the British accent generally, “Happy Christmas” started in posh circles in London, and spread out over the rest of the country. As late as 1909, when University of Bristol lecturer Arthur Warrell published the now-universal carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in an anthology of West Country Christmas carols, that was the typical form across much of England. (Notably, an earlier version also wished people “a pocket full of money and a cellar full of beer” — Mr. Warrell edited that out.)
King George’s 1932 address, which opened by celebrating the wonders of the radio, helped push “Happy Christmas” over the goal line as the standard form in Great Britain. His good wishes for his subjects were well-received. But his hope that “the wireless” would unite the Empire did not pan out. Today, especially given America’s cultural clout, “Merry Christmas” is on the lips of well-wishers around the world.
Between the poles of “Happy” Britain and “Merry” America, the question over what to call Christmas remains a live one. Canadians, like their brethren to the south, have remained merry. Australians are mixed, often on a family-by-family basis. In India, for some reason, this seems to be a hot issue, with Happy Christmas being considered more posh and Merry Christmas more colloquial. I spent this Christmas in the Cayman Islands, a British territory on America’s doorstep — there, a lot of advertisements wished us a Happy Christmas, but most people were merry.
As is often true in English, if you want to be really “proper,” you end up sounding a bit odd. “Glad tidings” is an ancient Christmas greeting dating to Old English, drawing on the older meaning of “tide” as time generally. Specifically, we are now in Yuletide, which was a twelve-day Germanic pagan feast until its name was transferred to the Christian holiday. So, whether you feel merry or happy this Christmas season, I wish a Glad Yuletide to all, and to all a good night.