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What is the Difference Between Saying 'Merry Christmas' and 'Happy Holidays'?

Margo Upson
Updated Jan 24, 2024
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Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! These two wishes of good cheer are echoed on busy streets and in homes starting almost as soon as the Thanksgiving meal has been wrapped into leftover containers. Both are meant in the same spirit, stating a wish that the recipient has a happy holiday season. There is a lot of controversy over the difference between Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, however. For some people, they mean completely different things.

The phrases Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays do have some differences. Merry Christmas refers, specifically, to the Christmas holiday, celebrated December 25th. It is a traditionally Christian sentiment. Happy Holidays is more general. It encompasses all holidays, religious in nature or not, that are celebrated during the winter holiday season. This phrase is considered more politically correct, as it does not leave anyone’s religion or beliefs out.

Christmas, however, is no longer just considered to be just a Christian holiday by everyone. Christmas trees are enjoyed by many families, not just those who actively attend church. Stockings, presents, and Santa are concepts that everyone can enjoy. The traditional Christian Christmas, celebrated as the recognized day of Jesus’ birth, has been altered by many to a day filled with family, friends, food, and gifts.

The saying Happy Holidays includes all religions and cultures in its sentiment. It spreads good tidings to those who celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or any other holiday. Happy Holidays also includes New Year's Day. This sentiment works both for people who celebrate for religious purposes and those who just enjoy the season for its own sake.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays used to be easily interchangeable. Everyone seemed to understand that the spirit of the wish was more important than the exact words said. Now, however, these phrases have become casualties in the battle of political correctness. Merry Christmas is felt to leave out too many people. Because of this, it has been abandoned by a lot of official institutions, such as governments and schools in the United States.

On the other side of this are the churches who feel that taking the wording of Christmas, and therefore Christ, out of the holidays is wrong. America was built on the idea of religious tolerance. According to church groups, this should not mean only for religions other than Christianity. By being asked to set aside the religious aspects of the holiday season, they feel that their own religion is not being tolerated.

This disagreement over the use of Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays leaves some people worried about offending someone over their choice of greetings. Both wishes are meant to spread good cheer, little more. They are not means of converting non-Christians, or denouncing Christ as the reason behind Christmas. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays are simple greetings between friends, acquaintances, and strangers during a season where almost everyone is just a little merrier.

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Margo Upson
By Margo Upson
With a vast academic background that has ranged from psychology and culinary arts to criminal justice and education, Margo Upson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her role as a WiseGeek writer. Her wide-ranging interests and skill at diving into new topics make her articles informative, engaging, and valuable to readers seeking to expand their knowledge.
Discussion Comments
By anon1005851 — On Dec 04, 2021

Christmas is actually not a true Christian holiday. It was a pagan holiday (actually, multiple pagan holidays) that was appropriated by the Christian church in the 4th Century AD. It was originally the pagan holiday Saturnalia, celebrated in mid-late December and marked by a couple of weeks of merry making, feasts, parties, gift giving, singing, a day where slaves were free and their masters had to serve them, and family get-togethers. Also, the Christians established the 25th as Christ’s birthday due to another pagan god's birthday being celebrated on the 25th, the birth of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun, which was a rival cult to the early Christian cult in Rome.

So, Christmas is actually not really a true christian holiday, and the celebration we all enjoy pre-dates Christianity.

There are many other non-Christian celebrations that centered around the winter solstice that were also absorbed into Christianity, like the Germanic yule and others.

By anon983008 — On Dec 26, 2014

Why can't we say both? "Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday". Isn't that what a lot of people say anyway? So you could either be talking about your own Christian religion, which includes Christmas and the 12 days after or someone else's religion that you don't know. That way you have covered all your basis without feeling like you have conceded. Isn't that in all the Christmas cards anyway?

By anon310885 — On Dec 27, 2012

As a practicing Christian, I realize I'm expected to be bothered by the use of "Happy Holidays" in place of "Merry Christmas", but honestly I'm not. To me, the religious holy day known as Christmas is a different entity than the bloated secular holiday most people observe. I enjoy aspects of both celebrations, but I can keep the reverent birth of Christ observation separate from the trees and candy and Santa Claus and shopping thing. If someone chooses to say "Happy Holidays", I figure they're referring to the secular season of giving, not to the specific Christian holiday of Christ's Mass.

There's also the idea of not knowing other people's religious or non-religious status. A generic "Happy Holidays" greeting covers my bases better than a specific "Merry Christmas". If I see someone wearing a Christmas-themed sweater, I'll probably say "Merry Christmas", but I wouldn't want to guess incorrectly too often. Saying "Happy Hannukah" to someone who is not Jewish would be just as bothersome as saying "Merry Christmas" to someone who is not particularly religious. As long as I'm still free to observe the Christian holy day of Christmas, the secular community at large can use whatever greeting they choose.

By anon308588 — On Dec 11, 2012

There would be no "happy holiday" without the birth of Christ. People get so bent out of shape and can't accept the fact that Christ's birth should not be taken out of context. America was born on Christian beliefs, so if you want to say "happy holidays", go somewhere else. Don't smack America's religious beliefs in the face just because you want to be tolerant.

By anon308572 — On Dec 11, 2012

I always thought Happy Holidays referred to holy days. Kwanzaa is a festival not associated with any one religion, so it is not a holy day and not a holiday, just a festival. And, even the Jewish faith refers to Hanukkah as festival, not a holiday.

I had always before this thought holidays referred to the 12 days of Christmas from Dec 25 until January 6th (Epiphany) Since the word holidays is plural, and there are 12 days of Christmas, that is what I thought it referred to. I don't think this should be such a controversial subject.

By lmorales — On Dec 12, 2010

@ChickenLover - This is a very controversial subject and I don't think many people realize it. I think you are right in your sentiments about the Christmas Music thing. While many people celebrate different holidays for various religions, that doesn't mean you would call your Christmas photos by another name. In fact, there are many people who celebrate different holidays like Kwanzaa or Hanukkah that would still say, "These are photographs from Christmas last year." I really believe that this is a "freedom of speech" type of subject.

By ChickenLover — On Dec 10, 2010

@baileybear - "Happy Holidays" is definitely a more PC concept and I think it's more appropriate. However, I still agree with you in that "Merry Christmas" should still be used. I feel like it's a tradition - even though I did not grow up in a heavily religious (or even remotely religious) home. If people want to say one or the other, then more power to them, but just because you want to say "Happy Holidays" doesn't mean that music during Christmas will be called "Holiday Music."

By baileybear — On Dec 07, 2010

The concept behind "Happy Holidays" used to mean exactly what this article states. However, now it seems to be more of a PC (or Politically Correct) way to go about things. Personally, I'm not a religious person and I PREFER "Merry Christmas," however can also see the side that people who celebrate other holidays in lieu of Christmas should also be shown respect. I don't know... it all seems a little ridiculous, but I'm on the fence about it.

Margo Upson
Margo Upson
With a vast academic background that has ranged from psychology and culinary arts to criminal justice and education,...
Learn more
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