'Merry' thanks to Dickens

December 22, 2011|Lisa Prejean

I enjoy teaching exchange students who have come here from other countries. It is interesting to see our culture through the eyes of someone who was raised in an environment totally different from our own.

Recently an exchange student asked me why we use the word "merry" with Christmas but "happy" with every other holiday. His question brought back a fourth-grade memory.

I was helping my teacher prepare a fall bulletin board. She had the letters for "Happy Thanksgiving" spread out across a desk in a perfect arch. I instinctively knew that this would not be an easy task. Place each of those letters on the wall, with an even amount of space between them, all on a perfect curve?

And she has to do this for every holiday? Wow.

I came up with a suggestion to help her save some time. Or so I thought.

"Why don't you just leave the word happy up for the next holiday and change the second word?"

She looked at the bulletin board, gazed at me and smiled.

"That's a good idea, but we can't do that," she kindly replied.

I wanted to know why.

"What is the next holiday?" she questioned. "It's one that children typically love."

Hmmm ... I thought. What holiday after Thanksgiving do children typically love?

Of course!! It must be Christmas.

"Why can't we keep 'Happy' up for Christmas?" I asked.

She told me to think about that.

"Do we tell people to have a 'Happy Christmas' or something else?" she asked.

Then it dawned on me. We say "Merry Christmas."

I related this story to the exchange student because I wanted him to know that years ago I too had wondered about the greeting.

I still didn't have an answer to his question, but I told him I would try to find out.

Little did I know that I had witnessed the answer just last week when I attended a Maryland Ensemble Theatre production of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, Md.

After Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, he decides to change his stingy ways and spread cheer to all those he encounters.

"I am as merry as a school-boy. A merry Christmas to everybody!" Scrooge proclaims.

The greeting "Merry Christmas" came into use because of the immediate popularity of "A Christmas Carol." Dickens' work, written in 1843, quickly appealed to mid-Victorian England, and caused a revival of Christmas celebrations and customs, according to

So when we say "Merry Christmas," we are continuing a great literary tradition. At the same time, we are spreading the joy, compassion and togetherness that Scrooge had learned to seek.

God bless us, everyone!

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send email to her at

The Herald-Mail Articles