The greetings and farewells “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Christmas” are traditionally used in North America, the United Kingdom, and Ireland beginning a few weeks prior to the Christmas holiday on December 25 of every year.
The phrase is often preferred when it is known that the receiver is a Christian or celebrates Christmas. The nonreligious often use the greeting as well, however in this case its meaning focuses more on the secular aspects of Christmas, rather than the Nativity of Jesus.
Its meanings and variations are:
- As “Merry Christmas”, the traditionally used greeting for those from America and the UK, composed of merry (jolly, happy) and Christmas (Old English: Cristes mæsse, for Christ’s Mass).
- As “Merry Xmas”, usually used to avoid the length of “Merry Christmas“, with the “X” (sometimes controversially) replacing “Christ”. (see Xmas)
- As “Happy Christmas”, an equivalent that is commonly used in the United Kingdom and Ireland, as well as “Merry Christmas”.
- As “Feliz Navidad”, which is the Spanish language equivalent of “Happy Christmas“, but is frequently used in English context. The phrase “Felices Fiestas”, the Spanish language counterpart of “Happy Holidays” has also been used in some Spanish speaking communities. This is not simply to be politically correct but simply to include all winter holidays that are celebrated in relation to Christmas in the Spanish-speaking world.
- Sometimes modifications of “Merry Christmas” is used in ironic sense, for example, use of “Merry Crisis” as reference to financial crisis of 2007-2008.
As of 2005, this greeting still remains popular among countries with large Christian populations, including, among others, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, and Mexico. It also remains popular in non-Christian areas such as the People’s Republic of China and Japan, where Christmas is still widely celebrated due to Western influences. Though it has somewhat decreased in popularity in the United States and Canada over the past decades, polls from 2005 indicate that it is more popular than “Happy Holidays” or other alternatives.
 History of the phrase
“Merry”, derived from the Old English myrige, originally meant merely “pleasant” rather than joyous or jolly (as in the phrase “merry month of May”).
Though Christmas has been celebrated since the 4th century AD, the first known usage of any Christmastime greeting, “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” (thus incorporating two greetings) was in an informal letter written by an English admiral in 1699. The same phrase appeared in the first Christmas card, produced in England in 1843, and in the popular secular carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
The then relatively new term “Merry Christmas” figured prominently in Charles Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol in 1843. The cynical Ebenezer Scrooge rudely deflects the friendly greeting: “If I could work my will”, says Scrooge, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding.” After the Spirits of Christmas effect his transformation, he is able to heartily exchange the wish with all he meets. The continued popularity of A Christmas Carol and the Victorian era Christmas traditions it typifies have led some to credit Dickens with popularizing, or even originating, the phrase “Merry Christmas”.
The alternative “Happy Christmas” gained wide usage in the late 19th century, and is still common in the United Kingdom and Ireland. One reason may be the alternative meaning, still current there, of “merry” as “tipsy” or “drunk”. Queen Elizabeth II is said to prefer “Happy Christmas” for this reason. In American poet Clement Moore‘s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823), the final line, originally written as “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night”, has been changed in many editions to “Merry Christmas to all”, perhaps indicating the relative popularity of the phrases in the United States.
 Happy Holidays
“Happy Holidays” is a seasonal greeting common in the United States and Canada, and is typically used during the holiday season. “Holiday” is derived from Middle English holidai meaning “holy day” . It is used as an inclusive greeting during the holiday season around Christmas to those who do not celebrate it, but instead other winter holidays like Hanukkah or New Year’s.
In the United States, it can have several variations and meanings:
- As “Happy Holiday”, an English translation of the Hebrew Hag Sameach greeting on Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot
- As “Happy Holiday”, a substitution for “Merry Christmas”
- As “Happy Holidays”, a collective and inclusive wish for the period encompassing Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, the Winter solstice, Christmas, and the New Year
In the United States, “Happy Holidays” (along with the similarly generalized “Season’s Greetings”) has become the common greeting in the public sphere within the past decade, such as department stores, public schools and greeting cards.
Some advocates of the phrase view it as an inclusive and inoffensive phrase that does not give precedence to one religion or occasion. Critics view it as an insipid alternative to “Merry Christmas”, and view it as diminishing the role of Christianity in Christmas, or part of an alleged secular “War on Christmas“.
The phrase ‘Happy Holidays” also considers the fact that New Years and Boxing Day occurs shortly after Christmas. Hence, “Happy Holidays” is effectively a short form for the greeting “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”