Christmas is conspicuously the only time of year when the word “merry” receives heavy use. The greeting “Merry Christmas” dates back to at least 1565, in which year the author of the Hereford Municipal Manuscript wrote “And thus I comytt you to god, who send you a merry Christmas & many.” Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, pushed it forward, as did industrialization: The first commercially sold Christmas card (also printed in 1843) contained the salutation “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”This of course brings us back to the central tension ever since the creation of the Church of England — between the Reformed (low church, Puritan, Methodist) and Anglo-Catholic (high church, Oxford Movement, Catholic without the Pope) branches of the CoE and Anglicanism.
Queen Elizabeth, a woman of serious low-church piety, is said to prefer “happy” to “merry” because she dislikes “merry’s” connotation of boisterousness, even slight intoxication. …
This moral suspicion of “Merry Christmas” dates back to the Methodist churchmen of the Victorian era who sought to promote sobriety among the English working class. Merrymaking of the ancient, alcoholic sort was frowned on year-round, perhaps never more so than during the celebration of the Savior’s birth. …
We may no longer associate “merry” with spirits alcoholic as well as high, but the meaning was once familiar. “Merry” appeared in both the Wyclife and King James bibles in reference to intoxication, where it describes an evening in the life of the rich man Nabal: “He held a feast in his house, like the feast of a king; and Nabal’s heart was merry within him, for he was very drunken.” (To wish someone a holiday feast like Nabal’s was to wish him a very good Christmas indeed.)
Meanwhile, the meaning of “Merry” brought to mind the refrain of an English folk carol
A Virgin unspotted the Prophet foretold,The words officially date to a 1750 text, and although there are many tunes, the one I know is Judea by William Billings (1746-1800).
Should bring forth a Saviour which now we behold,
To be our Redeemer from Death, Hell and Sin,
Which Adam's transgression involved us in.
Then let us be merry,
Cast sorrow away.
Our Saviour Christ Jesus
Is born on this day.
Wikisource calls it “an English Marian folk carol of medieval origin.” Although not the most reliable of sources, the text is undeniably Mary-centric and with Billing’s tune has an Elizabethan (i.e. 16th century) feel to it.
So if savouring the news of our Saviour is catholic, high church or Marian, I’m all for it.