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  • Eldon Peterson

Why We Wish You A Merry Christmas



Merry Christmas is a standard greeting this time of year; a greeting that is often said without considering the etymology of the words. However, with the growing secularization of our culture, there’s a decrease in the use of Merry Christmas in favor of the somewhat meaningless expression like Happy Holidays. Let me make a case for Merry Christmas.


The earliest use of “Merry Christmas” dates back to at least December 22, 1534 when it was used in a season's greetings letter from John Fisher to Thomas Cromwell. While Fisher was likely expressing a joyous greeting with his use of merry, this was not necessarily the primary definition of the word that came to people’s minds. Over the centuries the word “merry” has meant things other than the jolly definition we use today.


An early example of how the word merry was historically used is seen with Charles II (1630–1685) who was known as the Merry Monarch. This was not because he was joyful or cheery king but because of his raucous lifestyle of mistresses and drink. At the time, merry was most commonly associated with those who were rowdy and intoxicated. For this reason, the royal family in England adopted "Happy Christmas" as their preferred greeting rather than wishing someone a merry one.


This doesn’t mean that the word merry always meant something negative. The Christmas carol, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, dating back to the 15th century, applied another meaning of merry. Here, both the words rest and merry have meanings different from our own today. The word “rest” meant “keep,” while the word “merry” indicated a strong individual. If we modernized the title “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, it would become “May God Keep You Gentlemen Strong.”


Understanding what merry means helps us to not only sing the song correctly but it also helps in wishing someone a Merry Christmas. With our “Merry Christmas” we are encouraging people to see and know that God was present, able, and willing to keep us by His grace and might. It is the redemptive message of this carol that has given it sustaining power.


It seems that Charles Dickens himself understood some of this as he wrote a Christmas Carol in 1843. The story tells us that when a singer came to Scrooge’s door singing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” Scrooge hurls a ruler at the singer in outrage. By using this carol, Dickens underscores the power of Christ and what His birth means to all who embrace Him. As the song tells us the story of redemption, so Scrooge in Dickens’ story needed redemption.


Why should I use Merry Christmas as my holiday greeting? Partly because the vagueness of our other greetings offer no meaning. Things like “Seasons Greetings” may be warm and welcoming, but it doesn’t remind me of the reason for our celebrations. Whereas, Merry Christmas testifies of the hope of the salvation that the child brings. Using Christmas in our greeting provides meaning behind our celebrations by boldly declaring that the reason for our joy is in the child who was born to be our Savior.


The Christmas story didn’t start with Jesus’ birth, it was told 700 years before Christ by Isaiah where the prophet declared, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Listen carefully, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and she will call his name Immanuel (God with us).” (Isaiah 7:14) Later Isaiah goes onto say, “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)


The fulfillment of these words came with Jesus’ birth where the angels announced to the shepherds, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11) At Christmas the Christian remembers and celebrates not just the birth of a child, but the birth of their Savior. With Merry Christmas we declare that Christ was more than just a teacher and healer, we proclaim that he was born to be our savior.


With Merry Christmas we remember that Jesus is the reason for the season; something that is lacking in the innocuous Happy Holidays and Seasons Greetings. Merry Christmas or Happy Christmas keeps Christ at the center. I encourage you to declare Merry Christmas as a testimony of your hope in Christ today and every day. Merry Christmas!


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