The Christmas Dialect Divide

Scrooge

Scrooge, from the 1st Edition of 'A Christmas Carol'

Christmas greetings differ on each side of the Atlantic.  Here in the U.S., ‘Merry Christmas‘ is used almost exclusively, while ‘Happy Christmas‘ seems more common among dialects in UK.

But wait.  Didn’t the very British A Christmas Carol feature the term ‘Merry Christmas’ prominently?  Where did this ‘happy’ business come into play?

Not only was ‘Merry Christmas’ an important part of Dickens’ classic, but I would argue it was instrumental in popularizing the term.

For evidence, one might turn to the infinitely addictive Google NGram viewer (an online tool for finding the incidence of words and phrases in books throughout history). Take a look at this search results for ‘merry Christmas:’

In the decade after the publication of A Christmas Carol, use of the term increases dramatically. You may wonder why this then appears to decrease after the mid-1860′s.  This most likely results from NGram Viewer being case-sensitive:  After the mid-19th-century, fully capitalized ‘Merry Christmas’ becomes more common, and so occurrences are more equally distributed between capitalized and non-capitalized ‘merry.’

(By the way, I doubt Dickens was the only factor in the popularization of ‘Merry Christmas.’ The Victorian Era saw both the revival of the holiday and the creation of much of the imagery associated with it. But Scrooge no doubt helped.)

So how did ‘happy Christmas’ become so much more common in the UK?  Alas, NGram Viewer offers little indication for why this might be: usage begins to increase in the mid-19th-century, and steadily rises until the present day.  The theory I’ve encountered the most relates to turnover in the monarchy. Note this interesting explanation from The Phrase Finder:

That change in meaning [i.e. the 'Merry' in 'Merry Christmas'] is apparently viewed with disfavour by Queen Elizabeth II, who wishes her subjects a ‘happy’ rather than ‘merry’ Christmas in her annual Christmas broadcasts. The idea of a modern-day merry England is presumably unwelcome at the palace.

Did the Queen’s aversion to this particular greeting prompt the change? I have no idea. What I find more curious is that ‘merry Christmas’ has remained part of the lexicon of American dialects as long as it has. Almost every holiday is ‘happy’ here, so why is ‘merry Christmas’ the odd exception?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
This entry was posted in Miscellaneous Accents and Dialects and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Christmas Dialect Divide

  1. Laura says:

    It is so neat to have such well-researched answers to questions like this at one’s fingertips!

  2. Koppschüttler says:

    Indeed, I agree! Very amazing that people go the length to inqurie – and share their results.

    (Conversely, I am so often put off by “blog posts” that consist of three paragraphs of common knowledge, finished with the question: “So what do you think?” I usually think “I am not going to do your research, how about you spend more than two minutes on google?” So: Thank you, trawicks, for investing the time and sharing with us. :) )

    • trawicks says:

      Agreed! I find it’s actually easier to start a blog post about something I don’t know and do research as I’m writing it. Otherwise it would be pretty boring!

  3. dw says:

    When I first moved to the US from England, I said “Happy Christmas”, and got some quizzical responses!

    “Merry Christmas” is of course well known and understood in England, but I agree that, in my experience, “Happy Christmas” is today more common there.

    It looks as if “Merry Christmas” is yet another British invention that has lasted longer across the pond.

    • trawicks says:

      We do tend to adhere to a lot of Victorian and English customs, particularly in terms of Christmas carols. (I can only imagine what the austere Jacobite John Francis Wade would think of all the country-western, jazz, and rock covers of his ‘Adeste Fideles!’) I wonder what other types of British Christmas imagery we’ve retained that has fallen by the wayside in the UK.

  4. Mike says:

    Having lived in the UK all my life I’d say (and I suspect most people in the UK would too) that “Merry Christmas” was “more British” and “Happy Christmas” more American. This view is probably to do with the people associating “happy” with the phrase “happy holidays” which is uniquely American but possibly creeping in over here, to some complaint. Do you have any stats showing the preference either way?

    I can safely say that Merry Christmas is 100% current in the UK.

    • dw says:

      I have no stats, but I can confidently say that in 14 years I have _never_ heard anyone say “Happy Christmas” in the USA!

      Here are some data:

      .edu sites (i.e. US universities):
      ratio of “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Christmas” = 10:1

      .ac.uk sites (i.e. UK universities):
      ratio of “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Christmas” = 2:1

      which suggests that “Happy Christmas” is 3-4 times as common in the UK as in the US. Based on my own experience, I would have guessed that the difference would be higher.

      • Mike says:

        Oh right. I’d still maintain that while “happy” is more common in the UK than in the US, “merry” is more common than “happy” in both countries.

        Your test on the universities and mine on a few newspaper sites confirm this, even if it is unscientfic Googling!

  5. Tim Morris says:

    Just anecdotal, but my impression is that “Happy Christmas” is far more common in the Irish Republic than “Merry” – somewhat dampening the theory that Queen Elizabeth II is responsible.

    • trawicks says:

      Although the opposite may also be possible. ‘Happy’ and ‘Merry’ appear to be equally as old: it’s possible that the craze for ‘Merry’ popularized by Dickens simply never spread to Ireland, rather than a case of the Irish picking up a later British innovation.

      • dw says:

        Sorry, trawicks, but I think your Dickens theory is bunk. If one compares Google Book ghits for “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Christmas”, one finds that “Happy” is relatively most popular in the period 1851-1900, which is exactly the time when “A Christmas Carol” (published 1843) would have had the greatest influence.

        Instead what one sees is a steady rise in “Happy Christmas” relative to “Merry Christmas”, coming out of almost nowhere in the pre-1750 period. There is then a setback in the first decade of the twentieth century, from which “Happy Christmas” is recovering again.

        It’s possible that the apparent setback for “Happy Christmas” in the twentieth century is some artefact (for example of US vs. UK copyright status), but that would be unlikely to affect the nineteenth century data.

        Google Books hits:
        From before 1750: Merry 108 Happy 3 (36 : 1)
        1751-1800: Merry 184 Happy 30 (6.1 : 1)
        1801-1850 Merry 4550 Happy 797 (5.7 : 1)
        1851-1900 Merry 32200 Happy 8430 (3.8 : 1)
        1901-1950 Merry 58000 Happy 9590 (6.0 : 1)
        1951-2000 Merry 75700 Happy 15400 (4.9 : 1)

    • Aidan says:

      I am Irish and I lived in a few different parts of Ireland including the part in the UK. I don’t think that the Queen was too influential on how anybody spoke regardless of where I was though.
      In my experience Merry Christmas is nearly always used in greeting cards because one tends to reserve happy for the ‘and a Happy New Year’ part. In the written register Merry Christmas is appropriate.
      However, in the spoken register I would think that the vast majority of Irish people would say ‘Happy Christmas’ because merry sounds slightly archaic. I am not saying that you never hear Merry Christmas at all but you would be more likely to hear a radio presenter saying it than to hear it in colloquial speech on the street.
      In as far as merry as a word is still used it tends to be used as a kind of affectation e.g. ‘have a merry old time!’ or to mean slightly drunk ‘e.g. ‘I wasn’t drunk just merry’. I would say that the fact that the word is not quite so fashionable any more that has also led to the decline in the Merry Christmas greeting. It is similar to the decline in the use of gay as a synonym for happy.

  6. Wil says:

    In the 1912 version of “The Night Before Christmas” (first published in 1823), Saint Nicholas’s final words were still “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.” Now the last line is always quoted with “Merry” replacing “Happy”. Perhaps it is thus in the 20th century that the final week of the year has become a 7-day holiday of sorts (at least, a period in which little work gets done!), requiring a single, musically pleasing phrase of “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!”

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  8. Pingback: Happy vs. Merry: A Christmas Greeting Face-Off | Writer vs the World

  9. Pingback: Day 3 of Carmen’s Twelve Days of Christmas: Happy Christmas | Everything I Know about the UK... I Learned from the BBC

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