Updated: Mar 6
The answer lies in the Christian re-purposing of the riotous Roman solstice holidays Sol Invictus and the Saturnalia. If people won't stop celebrating, the reasoning went, we can at least pull them into church.
a guest posting from friend Dean Meservy, who, ever gracious, shared this Facebook essay of his with us all.
I often heard this question when I lived in Britain, where “Happy Christmas” is the typical Yuletide greeting.
It’s a good question. We don’t say “merry birthday,” or “merry Halloween,” or even “merry New Year.” Everything is “happy.” Except Christmas.
A lot of Americans seem to think that “Merry Christmas” arose out of religious piety. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The oldest written use of “Merry Christmas” dates to 1534. At the time, Christmas ran from December 25th to January 5th. What we call Christmas Day was the First Day of Christmas. Back then, the UPS man would not deliver a single lord a-leaping before January 4th.
The Twelve Days of Christmas had been observed in winter since AD 354. But why?
Christmas is supposed to celebrate the birth of Christ. But nothing in the Bible suggests that Jesus was born in December. Indeed, the evangelist Luke tells us “there were shepherds abiding [camping out] in the fields.” The only time that happened, then or now, was in the spring lambing season to protect the newborns.
So why pretend that Jesus was a Capricorn?
Christian re-purposing of the riotous Roman solstice holidays Sol Invictus and the Saturnalia. If people won't stop celebrating, the reasoning went, we can at least pull them into church.
When it was first instituted, and for centuries after, Christmas kept all of the Roman traditions: heavy drinking, dancing, singing, and the exchange of gifts. The most traditional presents were live birds. It is no accident that fully half of the gifts in the Twelve Days of Christmas are feathered.
The name changed, but the drunken partying stayed on. Echoes of raucous tavern songs and dances can still be heard in some of our oldest carols: “Deck the Halls,” “Wassail,” “Ding-Dong Merrily.”
During and after the Protestant Reformation, many devout Christians looked on Christmas with disapproval. Its roots made it pagan, they argued. It was "papist" (Catholic). Above all, it was immoral.
When the American Puritans criminalized Christmas in the 17th century, they weren’t hating on baby Jesus. They were offended by what they called “the great dishonor of God and offence of others.” You see, to the Puritans
- and indeed, well into the Victorian era — Christmas was associated with lewd, loud, drunken revelry.
Or, in the language of the day, “making merry.”
Read your Shakespeare. Read your King James Bible. Wherever merry doesn’t mean literally drunk, it clearly means to act like it. ("His heart was merry" is an old idiom meaning "soused.")
The Oxford English Dictionary records other senses of "merry" over the centuries, including "bountiful," "tasty," and oddly, "short." But in connection with Christmas, there is no question what it originally meant.
“Merry Christmas” survived in America because rowdy Christmas traditions lasted longer here than in Britain. New York City’s first police force was organized in 1828 to deal with violent Christmas celebrations.
The arrival of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” in 1843 began to change the holiday in the public mind. And we can thank Germany for further redefining Christmas as a family day of pious charity.
You see, Queen Victoria was as popular of in America as in Britain. And the peaceful German traditions that her devout husband Prince Albert imported from his native Germany were eagerly adopted.
You probably know that this is where got the Christmas tree. But Germany is also responsible for our shift in Christmas carols away from drinking songs and toward hymns.
"Silent Night," "O Christmas Tree," "Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming," and "O Come Little Children" were direct imports. America soon began producing its own hymn-carols: "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" in 1849, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" in 1868, "Away in a Manger" in 1882. The German tradition was so strong that the latter was long (but falsely) attributed to Martin Luther.
By 1870 Christmas had quieted sufficiently for the United States to make it the official holiday that it is to this day.
But unlike our British friends, we have kept the old word “merry” from a day when Christmas was anything but a Silent Night.
Times change; words change. Nowadays, when we say “Merry Christmas” to our neighbors we aren’t wishing drunkenness and bad behavior upon them. The office Christmas party takes care of that.
What we usually mean is a wish for joy, happiness, and - ironically - peace.
And if that’s what is intended, then by Santa’s whiskers, that’s what “Merry” means.
Merry Christmas to all!
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