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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Repost: The Making of "Merry"

“If I could work my will…every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled in his own pudding.”  
Ebenezer Scrooge

In 1843 Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, and it was around this time that the Christmas traditions that are known and cherished began.  Up until that time people would wish one another “Happy Christmas”, a greeting that Queen Elizabeth seems to prefer today.  But with the publication of Dickens’ book, the word merry began to take up a new meaning of “joyful, jolly, cheerful, and gay” ("gay" has changed in meaning itself), and in some cases intoxicated.  It still had a bit of a bawdy reputation.  All the new Christmas traditions and the use of this word in the instantly popular Dickens cemented the change of meaning for merry.

Prior to Victorian times, the word had less stellar implications.  In Middle English it had wider meaning:  “pleasant-sounding”; “pleasant-tasting”; “fine” weather; “handsome” dress.  In the 14th century, a merry-man was the companion or follower of a knight or outlaw.  (Remember Robin Hood and his Merry Men?)  A merry-bout was slang for an occasion of sexual intercourse circa 1780, or a drinking session (presumably and hopefully ending in intercourse).  Merry-begot meant illegitimate or a bastard in 1785. 

There have been many phrases using merry since the 1300s, when one would make merry (and it still means partying!)  Merry England, which meant more along the lines of prosperous in 1400, is now commonly used mockingly.  The merry month of May in the 1560s meant pleasant.

Dinah Maria Mulock Craik (1826-1887) was a British poet who wrote a very popular Christmas carol still sung today:

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ, our Saviour,
Was born upon this day,
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy!
For Jesus Christ, our Saviour,
Was born on Christmas Day.

It is important to note the punctuation in this song.  Merry is not an adjective describing gentlemen.  Rather it is wishing for God to allow the gentlemen to be content, as in “rest easy” or “rest assured”.  This is further stressed by the next line, "Let nothing you dismay."

Dickens was referring to the song when he wrote A Christmas Carol, and quotes it, in part, in the book.  Little did he realize he was legitimizing a phrase that would be used over 150 years later.

“I am as merry as a school-boy.  A Merry Christmas to everybody!”    
Ebenezer Scrooge

Note:  This was first posted 12/21/10.

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