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06 December, 2015

THE ORIGIN OF "MERRY CHRISTMAS"


Ever wonder about the origin of the salutation "Merry Christmas"?

"A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You" was the verse that was shown on the first commercially available Christmas card in 1843. Christmases had been merry long before that though. The use of 'Merry Christmas' as a seasonal salutation dates back to at least 1534, when, on 22nd December, John Fisher wished the season's greetings in a letter to Thomas Cromwell, recorded in Strype Ecclesiastical memorials, 1816):

And this our Lord God send you a mery Christmas, and a comfortable, to your heart’s desire.


The year 1843 was the date of the publication of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol and it was around that time, in the early part of the reign of Queen Victoria, that Christmas as we now know it was largely invented. The word merry was then beginning to take on its current meaning of 'jovial, and outgoing' (and, let's face it, probably mildly intoxicated). Prior to that, in the times when other 'merry' phrases were coined, for example, make merry (circa 1300), Merry England (circa 1400) and the merry month of May (1560s), merry had a different meaning, that is, 'pleasant, peaceful and agreeable'.

That change in meaning was apparently viewed with disfavour by Queen Elizabeth II, who wished her subjects a 'happy' rather than 'merry' Christmas in her annual Christmas broadcasts. The idea of a modern-day merry England was presumably unwelcome at the palace.

The best-known allusion to merriment at Christmas is the English carol "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." The source of this piece isn't known. It was first published in William Sandys' Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern in 1833, although versions of it probably existed as a folk-song and tune well before that but weren't written down. Sir Thomas Elyot, listed the phrase 'rest you merry' in his Dictionary in 1548:

"Aye, bee thou gladde: or joyfull, as the vulgare people saie Reste you mery."It is often assumed that the carol's lyric portrays the wish that jovial gentlemen might enjoy repose and tranquility. The punctuation of the song suggests otherwise though -- it's 'God rest ye merry, gentlemen', not 'God rest ye, merry gentlemen'. In this context 'to rest' doesn't mean 'to repose' but 'to keep, or remain as you are' - like the 'rest' in 'rest assured'.

'Rest ye merry' means 'remain peacefully content' and the carol contains the wish that God should grant that favour to gentlemen (gentlewomen were presumably busy in the kitchen). It isn't the 'rest' that is being given but the 'merry'. Anyone misreading that comma is in good company though. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen was the carol that Dickens was referring to in "A Christmas Carol":

"The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of "God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!" 
Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror."

Sadly, Scrooges exist to this day but we won't let them deter us from wishing each other a "Merry Christmas"...Will we?!

NOTE:
The dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies: Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later. In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism. Then again, in this notion of cycles and the return of God’s redemption, we may perhaps also be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood and claimed for their own, too.

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