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The War of Words behind ‘Happy Holidays’

December 14, 2017 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

Christmas cards on sale at a Target store for the 2017 holiday season. (Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In recent years, the debate over whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” has become as reliable a post-Thanksgiving tradition as the Black Friday shopping craze.

Like many issues these days, the great holiday greeting debate tends to separate along political lines as much as religious ones. According to a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2016, 66 percent of Democrats said that stores and businesses should greet customers with “Happy Holidays,” “Season’s Greetings” or some other general greeting, rather than “Merry Christmas,” as a show of respect for different religious faiths; only 28 percent of Republicans felt the same.

Setting aside politics, what’s the history behind the different greetings? How did a simple salutation get so controversial?

Christmas cards on sale at a Target store for the 2017 holiday season. (Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Much like “Merry Christmas,” it turns out that “Happy Holidays” also has religious roots. Both are derived from Old English: Christmas comes from “Cristes Maesse,” or the Mass of Christ, the first usage of which (in 1038) described the mass held to commemorate Christ’s birth. As for “holiday,” the word emerged in the 1500s as a replacement of the earlier medieval word “haliday,” which itself had supplanted the Old English “haligdæg,” meaning holy day.

Recently, an investigation into the history of the phrase “Happy Holidays” as a seasonal greeting in the United States by self-described history nerd Jeremy Aldrich turned up its usage as early as 1863, in the Philadelphia Inquirer. By the middle of the 20th century, the phrase was well established in popular usage, as shown in a study of ads run by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in Carolina Magazine from 1935 to 1942 to encourage giving the gift of tobacco.

A 1937 ad proclaimed: “A gift of Camels says, ‘Happy Holidays and Happy Smoking!’” Other ads from the 1930s and early 1940s stuck to “Season’s Greetings,” but all featured jolly, grinning Santa Clauses, reindeer, Christmas trees and other recognizable Christmas symbols.

1925 Hallmark Christmas card. (Courtesy of the Hallmark Archives, Hallmark Cards, Inc., Kansas City, Missouri, USA )

As Andrew McGill wrote in The Atlantic in 2016, Christians have exchanged the greeting “Happy Holidays” among themselves for decades, most with the understanding that the “holidays” meant the season of Advent, the four-Sunday cycle on that includes Christmas and ends on the Feast …read more


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