By Jeff Westover
It falls from our lips without much thought: “Merry Christmas!”. But what is it we are really saying?
In an informal survey conducted recently more than 84 percent of Americans asked thought that the word “merry” meant “jolly”.
Taken in context, many around the world do indeed celebrate a “jolly” Christmas these days. But that contemporary interpretation is not exactly the traditional definition of the word “merry”.
In old England, where the phrase “Merry Christmas” originates, the word ‘merry’ means pleasant or joyous. To wish one a “Merry Christmas” meant to wish them well in celebrating a season of festivity or rejoicing. In no way does it suggest the jockularity, hi-jinks, frivolity or sometimes raucous nature of the word “jolly”.
The 16th century carol (English, of course) “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” demonstrates the true meaning of the word ‘merry’ and, ironically, highlights how the word itself is oft times misinterpreted.
The comma after the word ‘merry’ in “God Rest You Merry, Gentleman” separates ‘merry’ from the noun “gentlemen”, thus not making it an adjective to describe those gentlemen. It is instead a command to be joyous, such as “God Keep You Joyous, Gentlemen”.
So when we say “Merry Christmas” we are, in fact, wishing one a joyous Christmas season.