I originally hail from India. My relatives are still living in India. I called them yesterday for Christmas and talked for a while. One thing I kept noticing in the call was that they were saying “Happy Christmas” and my family here in America kept saying “Merry Christmas”. I was curious about this and thought I would research the differences in the phrases. It turns out that the difference is based on which side of “the pond” you are. “Merry Christmas” is quite common in America and “Happy Christmas” is quite common in England.
The phrase “Merry Christmas” has a not-so-merry origin. In 1534, King Henry VIII condemned Bishop John Fisher to death for not recognizing the king as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. The bishop was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and he wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell, the then chief minister of King Henry VIII. In the letter, the bishop requested Thomas Cromwell provide him a shirt, a sheet, good food, and a priest to hear his confession. The bishop also requested him to talk to the king to have him released. The bishop ended the letter with a “Merry Christmas” wish. The bishop was executed on 22nd June 1535. The king showed the bishop mercy by beheading him instead of hanging him. The phrase caught on and was even used by Charles Dickens in his 1843 classic story, “A Christmas Carol”. Coincidentally, Sir Henry Cole in England commissioned the first Christmas greeting cards in the same year. The card stated “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year To You”. Sir Henry Cole produced 2050 Christmas greeting cards that year that were sold for a shilling each.
The credit to replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Christmas” in England should perhaps go to King George V. King George V gave the first Royal Christmas Broadcast through the BBC in 1932. In his speech, King George V wished everybody a Happy Christmas. One of the hypotheses regarding the change of phrase is that the word “merry” has a negative connotation as in being associated with inebriation. The word “happy” on the other hand, is a description of a state of mind and associated with luck (hap = luck). Thus, the people were encouraged to be happy rather than be merry. The royal family started to use Happy Christmas and this caught on to become the favorite holiday greeting in England.
The story of “Happy Christmas” reminded me of “Attractors” in Complexity theory. A social system is a complex system that has propensities and dispositions. An attractor is a pattern that is formed within the system based on the interaction of its numerous entities. Since the Royal Family started saying “Happy Christmas” instead of “Merry Christmas”, the upper class started using “Happy Christmas”. This then started to become quite popular across the classes. The phrase “Happy Christmas” became the attractor pattern in England, whereas in America, there was no impact or interaction from King George V, and “Merry Christmas” stayed as the popular Christmas wish.
I will finish off with another example of an attractor. Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart in their 1995 book, “The Collapse of Chaos”, talks about two ice cream vendors at a beach. Lets say that Vendor A and Vendor B are both located equidistant from one another between a pier at one end and a rocky point at the other end. Just by luck, Vendor A got more customers than Vendor B on the first day. Seeing this, Vendor B moved a little closer to Vendor A and got more customers. Vendor A now moved a little closer to Vendor B. Soon enough, both the vendors were now next to each other in the middle of the beach. The vendors were not moving towards the physical center of the beach due to the location. Their interaction with each other caused the attractor pattern to form.
Have a Merry Happy Christmas, and Holiday Season!
Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was The Information Model for Poka Yoke: