Language for Every Occasion: Christmas Linguistics by Ben Jones


Have a [Merry/Happy] Christmas!

Choosing a Christmas greeting can be a heated issue for many revellers around the western world at Christmastime. Whilst Americans battle between choosing a Christian ‘Merry Christmas’ and a more culturally-encompassing ‘Happy Holidays’, us British are at odds with two collocative phrases surrounding the noun Christmas: Merry Christmas and Happy Christmas. (as for Happy Holidays, it appears to be very much out of the question in the U.K.)

What exactly are Collocations?

For those uninitiated in linguistics, a ‘collocation’ is the term used for the habitual co-occurrence of a particular words next to others. They are ‘syntagmatic lexical relations’, and can be linguistically predictable (Crystal, 2008:86-87).

Take for example, the adjective ‘auspicious’. This collocates, perhaps most frequently, with the noun ‘occasion’. The likelihood of ‘occasion’ following ‘auspicious’ in English is relatively high. In a similar vein then, the noun ‘Christmas’ often collocates with the attributive adjective ‘happy’. A syntactic string such as ‘Have a happy: BLANK’ will most likely throw up a series of other similar festivity nouns such as: ‘Birthday’, ‘Easter’, ‘New Year’. Another collocation with a narrower collocative range would be ‘merry’ + ‘Christmas’. A longer collocative string such as : ‘Have a merry BLANK’, is quite likely to bring to mind only the collocation Christmas. ‘Have a Merry New Year’ doesn’t sound quite right, and ‘Have a Merry Birthday’ is simply out of the question.

So, how did ‘Merry’ and ‘Happy’ collocate to the word Christmas to become a set phrase? What’s the history of these two festive phrases……

The History of Merry Christmas

Without any doubt, ‘Merry Christmas’ is the older of the two phrases. The earliest written attestation dates back to 1534, where the Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, wrote: ‘And thus our Lord send yow a mery Christenmas, and a comfortable, to yowr heart deysar.’

In 1565, a certain J. Scudamore wrote: ‘And thus I comytt you to god, who send you a mery Christmas & many’; it was then the first Earl of Sandwich who in 1667 wrote a more recognisable: ‘I wish you a very merry Christmas’. But why use the adjective ‘Merry’?  Well, Christmas, as a late medieval festival, was originally aligned with winter merriment festivals (i.e. inebriated revelry and feasting) that had carried over from celebrations of Yuletide, an earlier Pagan winter festival.  People would wish each other to be ‘merry’, as it was a term associated with ‘active’, drunken enjoyment. A personified version of Christmas presided over these festivities; he was a bit like everybody’s favourite skeletal personification, Death, except with a bit more meat on his bones and booze in his belly.

Left: ‘Merry Christmas’ by Kenny Meadows Illustrated London News, 1847

Right: ‘Father Christmas’ by Alfred Crowquill  – Illustrated London News, 1843

The combination of ‘Merry’ and ‘Christmas’ surged in popularity in the 1800s. By using google NGram viewer (an online tool that plots the frequency of particular written words across time with help of a large linguistic corpus), we can view the collocation’s historical written popularity through time. Plotted below are the uncapitalised ‘merry Christmas’, which came first, and its capitalised successor: ‘Merry Christmas’, which seems to have caught on at the dawn of the 20th century.


That upward trajectory in both variants after 1840 is likely connected to one key text that became very popular throughout the English-speaking world: Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel A Christmas Carol, in which the collocative  ‘merry Christmas’ appeared 18 times overall!

(Linguistic  sidenote: this work of fiction introduced to the English language the exclamative ‘Bah! Humbug’, and the noun, ‘scrooge’)

Eventually, Dickens’ favoured phrase became so popular both in the U.K. and U.S. that in later editions of Clement Clark Moore’s 1823 story ‘Twas a Night Before Christmas Santa’s final remark — “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night” had to be changed to “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night” to better reflect fashionable sentiment.

The History of Happy Christmas

As for ‘Happy Christmas’, one of the earliest written records of ‘Happy Christmas’, dates back to F. Shaftoe, who wrote in 1707: ‘I wish you a happy Christmas and New Year’.  In Britain, it didn’t catch on until the advent of the 20th century (wishing people ‘Happy Christmas’ gained little traction in U.S.). There seems to now be a distinct dialectal difference between the U.K. and the U.S. in terms of Christmas well-wishing: Brits tend to say Happy Christmas, Americans tend to say Merry Christmas. Is there perhaps a British reason behind this British change?

One source (Schmitz, 2013) suggests that the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ was, in post-Victorian society, often connoted with the Dickens-esque rowdiness and revelry of carolling and alcohol consumption, with associations with the British lower class. Schmitz suggests that, to combat this: ‘Happy Christmas’ might have been introduced as an alternative, sobering phrase within British upper class society.

Although this is speculative, we can at least trace the surge in Happy Christmas’ popularity to one likely place in time: the first royal Christmas speech made in 1932 by the rather upperclass King George V. In that speech, he stated: ‘To all — to each — I wish a Happy Christmas”, rather than ‘Merry Christmas’. It should be noted, however, that George V, didn’t write his Christmas speech, having persuaded novelist Rudyard Kipling to compose it for him (Rose, 1983)! Therefore, it might have been Kipling who chose Happy over Merry, although the King could have made his own editorial changes. Nevertheless, like clockwork every year, his granddaughter – Queen Elizabeth II – has wished Britons a ‘Happy’ Christmas for the last 60-odd years and has never wavered from the adjective. Regardless of who initially wrote ‘Happy Christmas’ in the speech, it is quite likely Elizabeth II’s usage that solidified its usage in Britain.

What have we learnt? Though it seems both collocations were established before their literary appearances, the popularity of written texts by Dickens and Kipling-cum-George V may possibly be behind the popularity.

Reference List

Crystal, D. (2008). A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. Oxford :Blackwell Publishing

Gawne, L. (2011, December). Christmas words: Merry Christmas! Retrieved from

Okrent, A. (2015, December). Why Do We Say ‘Merry’ Just for Christmas? [Video File] Retrieved from

Rose, K. (1983). King George V. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Schmitz, M. (2013, December). It’s Merry Christmas, Not Happy Christmas. Retrieved from

Trawick-Smith, B. (2011, December). The Christmas Dialect Divide. Retrieved from


Merry Christmas, New York : Published by Currier & Ives, c1876

Merry Christmas by Kenny Meadows Illustrated London News, 1847, Retrieved from,_Illustrated_London_News,_25_December_1847.jpg

Father Christmas by Alfred Crowquill’ – Illustrated London News. Retrieved from,_Illustrated_London_News,_23_Dec_1843.jpg