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Happy Christmas just sounds wrong to my American ear. (I do get that it is customary in England.) Merry New Year, equally so. Of the two, Christmas is the younger holiday and yet its greeting seems to be the more archaic.

So, my question is this: how did these greeting wishes get stuck with these holidays, and not the reverse?

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They're perfectly comfortable with Happy Christmas in the UK... – Gnawme Dec 23 '11 at 21:36
Have a look at this blog post from our very own Marthaª. There might be some interesting titbits in there for you – Matt E. Эллен Dec 23 '11 at 21:43
@balanv, that is incorrect. The etymology of Merry isn't related to the name Mary at all. One of English's strengths over many other European languages is that we carefully preserve the etymology and ethnic origins of a word in its spelling. Of course, that does make our spelling ridiculously complex. In any event, merry comes from the Old English myrige meaning "pleasing" or "agreeable". Mary is an Anglicization of a Latin word from a Greek word from the Hebrew word name MRYM that is related to a word for "rebellion". – Ryan Haber Dec 24 '11 at 16:50
@kris I was waiting til Christmas morning to accept an answer. – Affable Geek Dec 25 '11 at 12:43
up vote 16 down vote accepted

Looking at the definitions of merry and happy, I would suggest that merry implies more short-term jollity, and happy more long-term contentment. That would square well with the Merry Christmas and Happy New Year usage.

The definitions of merry I found here and here, and for happy here and here.

It might also be worth noting that merry is used in phrases like play merry hell, play Merry Andrew and the alternative meaning of merry (meaning 4) meaning somewhat inebriated, which are all short-term (one hopes) states of affairs.

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Many people probably eat more at Christmas and drink more on New Year's Eve – Henry Dec 23 '11 at 22:22
"Happy New Year" though is not a wish for an enjoyable New Year's Eve, when this drinking takes place. It is a wish for a happy year to come. – MετάEd Dec 23 '11 at 22:57
Then why is it Happy Halloween? :/ – Abhinav Pandey Dec 24 '11 at 16:22
@AbhinavPandey: english.stackexchange.com/questions/46775/… – Kris Dec 25 '11 at 12:06

a state of enjoyable exuberance; playful fun
noun /ˈmerēmənt/  Gaiety and fun
- her eyes sparkled with merriment

Hap"pi*ness, n. [From Happy.]
1. Good luck; good fortune; prosperity.
- All happiness bechance to thee in Milan! Shak.

Merriment is having some good fun, while happiness is a much broader term, relating to overall well-being with all necessities of life, and so on.

Christmas is a time of celebration and therefore a 'Merry Christmas' would be appropriate. A new year, as in 'Happy New Year', on other hand, extends over a whole year (and further on) and as such the sense of good luck, good fortune and prosperity provided by Happy would be appropriate.

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You seem to have said exactly what I intended to write as an answer here. :) – ikartik90 Dec 24 '11 at 11:21
@ikartik90: We wrote the answer, then! :) MerryXMas! – Kris Dec 24 '11 at 11:32
Merry Christmas. :) – ikartik90 Dec 24 '11 at 11:33

As Gnawme said, we're perfectly happy with 'Happy Christmas' in the UK. But when we put the two together, we'd probably say 'a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year'. Why that way round? Well, as you say, 'Merry New Year doesn't sound right', and I think Kris has given you exactly the answer why.

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I think it's ok because we are less reliant on catchphrases than our US friends and it makes perfectly good sense. However that doesn't mean it is the norm, which some people seem to have been mislead to believe. Just like "enjoy your birthday" isn't wrong but it's not the saying. – JamesRyan Jan 1 at 1:47

merry Christmas and happy New Year are the commonly ones known by all. In my opinion, merry simply depicts vivacity and optimism. In this sense, it suggests more should be expected in the years ahead. Whereas happy unsophisticatedly demonstrates pleasure, satisfaction, gratification or fulfillment.

You can vividly conclude that merry which means expectation. It ushers individuals into the state of fulfillment, satisfaction and excitement into the present and future. Hence, it is just appropriate to have Merry Christmas and Happy New Year rather than Happy Christmas and Merry New Year.

Additionally, Christmas is commemorated within the last few days to the closure of the year, and it is short lived and enjoyed, while New Year has a lengthy period. It means before the next merriment, you would have been fulfilled, satisfied and willing to gratify the maker of all things for another merry Christmas which places you in high pedestal of expectation before stepping confidently into another new year. -- Rachel Pauline Aikins, Ghana, East Legon

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