The first reference I can find in the OED to "Merry Christmas" is from 1534. This date very roughly corresponds with the English Reformation and Henry VIII's breach with Rome.

From that time the idea of a "Merry Christmas" seems to take off with several entries in the 17th century. But it cannot, surely, have been protestants, let alone puritans, who promoted the idea of a 'Merry Christmas', since the word merry suggests at least mild intoxication.

Charles II (1630–1685) was known as the Merry Monarch, a reference to his lifestyle, many mistresses, and his annulment of the puritan laws instituted by Cromwell.

Until references to Christmas became politically incorrect, it was interestingly in America (the great puritan bastion), that "Merry Christmas" was more frequently used — Britons preferring the more sober sounding 'Happy Christmas'.

Does anyone know anything about the history and politics of "Merry Christmas"? Prior to let's say the 1970s, when secular symbols and "Season's Greetings", or "Yuletide greetings" start to take over, does anyone remember any strong movement against a notion of 'Merry Christmas', on the grounds that it imported a decadence into the religious festival?

  • Robin Hood's men? – Edwin Ashworth Dec 13 '14 at 10:03
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    "Happy" vs. "Merry": A Holiday Perspective:vocabulary.com/articles/wordshop/…. Interesting story from The Phrase Finder: phrases.org.uk/meanings/merry-christmas.html. Merry vs Happy Christmas : books.google.com/ngrams/… – user66974 Dec 13 '14 at 10:38
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Andrew Leach Dec 14 '14 at 9:38
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    New England (except perhaps Rhode Island) was the great bastion of Puritanism. The Anglicans of Virginia, the Catholics of Maryland, and the Reformed of New York had no quarrel with merriment, yuletide or otherwise. – choster Dec 14 '14 at 17:35
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    Are you asking who as in what people? What country? What person? It would help if you could be more specific. – anongoodnurse Dec 16 '14 at 0:37

You're essentially correct. See this article for a plausible history. The salient excerpts:

"The use of 'Merry Christmas' as a seasonal salutation dates back to at least 1534, when, on 22nd December, John Fisher wished the season's greetings in a letter to Thomas Cromwell, recorded in Strype Ecclesiastical memorials, 1816):

And this our Lord God send you a mery Christmas, and a comfortable, to your heart’s desire.

"1843 was the date of the publication of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol and it was around that time, in the early part of the reign of Queen Victoria, that Christmas as we now know it was largely invented. The word merry was then beginning to take on its current meaning of 'jovial, and outgoing' (and, let's face it, probably mildly intoxicated). Prior to that, in the times when other 'merry' phrases were coined, for example, make merry (circa 1300), Merry England (circa 1400) and the merry month of May (1560s), merry had a different meaning, that is, 'pleasant, peaceful and agreeable'."

The article goes on to note that Queen Elizabeth II prefers the phrase "happy Christmas," ostensibly because "merry" connotes frivolity and (possibly) inebriation. This would be one of the primary sources of resistance to the phrase in the UK.

In the States, there's no definitive date either side of which the phrase is acceptable or unacceptable. Rather, as this piece in Forbes suggests, the tussle over "Merry Christmas" is about the attempt by retailers to entice customers without also offending them.

According to this Rasmussen poll, 68% of Americans, c. 2012, prefer "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays". It's merely an assumption, but a safe one, that the rise of evangelicals in the political sphere has contributed to the resurgent debate about the phrase's political correctness, and to the assertion that its suppression represents an assault on Christian values. This places the beginnings of the debate, as we currently know it, roughly in the '80s.

  • Some interesting observations there. – WS2 Dec 17 '14 at 17:32

Prior to the 1840s, merry in Enland did NOT mean joyful or intoxicated, but instead meant pleasant, peaceful and agreeable'.

  • Do you have a reference for this claim? – FracturedRetina Dec 15 '16 at 2:05
  • Partly true.But running in parallel with peaceful and agreeable from at least as early as the fourteenth century is a more animated meaning (OED sense4), particularly 4c - Boisterous or cheerful due to alcohol; slightly drunk, tipsy. Cf. market-merry adj. at market n. Compounds 2, merry-drunk adj. at merry adv. Compounds 1. It appears in Wycliffe's bible ▸a1382 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Bodl. 959) (1963) 1 Kings xxv. 36 Þer was to hym a feste in his hous..and þe herte of naabal myrie [a1425 L.V. iocounde; L. iucundum]; forsoþe he was drunke ful myche. – WS2 Dec 15 '16 at 7:45
  • First ref to Merry Christmas, 1534 J. Fisher Let. 22 Dec. in T. Fuller Church Hist. Eng. (1837) v. iii. 47 And thus our Lord send yow a mery Christenmas, and a comfortable, to yowr heart desyer.. So there may be something in what you say. But I am not going to accept your answer, nor upvote it, since a) you have rudely downvoted my question and b) I am having to do your spadework for you. – WS2 Dec 15 '16 at 7:48

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