Why Do We Say “Merry Christmas” but “Happy” Everything Else?

It's true that Christmas tends to get the most fanfare of all the holidays, at least in the United States. But how did it get its own adjective?

The word “merry” isn’t one we use very often during the months of January through November. But as soon as Thanksgiving passes, you’re bound to start hearing and seeing it everywhere—on billboards, on decorations, in songs, and, of course, straight from the mouths of well-wishers. And after it, you’re almost certain to hear the word “Christmas.” (Or the words “little Christmas,” in the event of a certain holiday standard.) But if you wished someone a “Merry Birthday,” or a “Merry Halloween,” you’d probably get some weird looks! Likewise if you wished someone a “Happy Christmas” (unless you live in England, where many people do say “Happy Christmas”). Why is Christmas the only holiday we hope will be “merry”? Plus, find out exactly why we celebrate Christmas on December 25.

Today, we use ” merry” for Christmas the way we use “happy” for any other holiday, but the words themselves technically don’t have the exact same meaning. While “happy” suggests a more general emotional state of joy, “merry” can imply that there’s a bit of raucous revelry afoot. And before the 18th century, you could hear both “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Christmas.” The most likely reason for this is the fact that, well, “merry” was just a far more popular word back then than it is today. The first written record of someone using “Merry Christmas” comes from a 1534 letter from a bishop to royal minister Thomas Cromwell.

But then, in the 18th century, “merry” started to tip the scales, largely thanks to one man: Charles Dickens. “Merry Christmas” was the phrase of choice in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a work that would have a major influence on the modern English-speaking world’s perception of Christmas. It was gaining popularity in carols as well. In addition, the language was changing and “merry” was falling out of fashion as a word on its own. It stuck around, though, in phrases like “the more the merrier” and—you guessed it—the now increasingly popular “Merry Christmas.”

But, because of the potentially rabble-rousing connotations of “Merry Christmas,” high-class Brits—including the royal family themselves—chose “Happy Christmas” as their default greeting. That’s why you’ll still hear it today in the U.K. This likely also helped cement the popularity of “Merry Christmas” in America—newly independent Americans were determined to specifically not do and say things the British way. This is why Brits and Americans spell so many words differently.

Now, of course, because of the popularity of “Merry Christmas”—and how little we say “merry” in other situations—”merry” now calls to mind a celebration that’s cozy, festive, and filled with gift-giving rather than one that’s overly revelrous and rowdy. And this is the most likely reason it would just sound…odd to use the word for any other holiday.

[Sources: Mental Floss, Country Living]

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for RD.com since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.