"Happy" vs. "Merry"

Which do you prefer: "Happy Christmas" or "Merry Christmas"?

In Clement Moore's "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (1823), the poem ends with Santa exclaiming, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

However, while Moore called Christmas "happy," Charles Dickens preferred "merry." In his classic work, "A Christmas Carol" (1843), "Merry Christmas" resounds across the entire story. U.S. radio stations broadcast Dickens' book for years, which no doubt influenced popular culture, solidifying "merry" in American usage. 

So which word elicits the most warm-fuzzy sentiments? Let's do a word study to make up our minds:

The word "merry" provokes feelings of lightheartedness and high spirits. Today, every word in the "merry" family is bright and positive—merry, merriment, merrymaking. There are no negative derivatives (i.e. no "mis-merry" or "un-merry").

However, "happy" is a different story. The base word "hap" belongs to a much larger tree of words, many of which are relatively . . . unhappy. How about mishap, or hapless? Yikes.

Also, the base "hap" is super chancy, and who wants that? The morpheme "hap" means "chance, fortune, luck," which is where we get mayhap, perhaps, and happenstance.

I'd rather not take a gamble when it comes to Christmas cheer. "Merry" is the clear winner in my book; its entire linguistic family is joyful and spirited! That "hap" family is far too hazardous.

Merry Holidays!

~ Moira

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