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In contemporary English the word "merry" means "jolly," "cheerful," "lively," or "happy." Few people realize, however, that it once meant something slightly different. At the time the English coined the phrase "Merry Christmas," merry meant "pleasant," "delightful," or "joyful." Thus, at that time, the well-known phrase "merry England" did not mean "jolly England," but rather "pleasant" or "delightful" England. When used to describe a holiday, the word "merry" signaled that it was a time of festivity or rejoicing.

In greeting one another with the phrase "Merry Christmas," the English were wishing each other a festive and joyful holiday. The sixteenth-century English Christmas carol, "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," offers another example of this usage. Contemporary English speakers often interpret the title of this song to mean something like "God Rest You, Jolly Gentlemen." In fact, the comma separating "merry" from "gentlemen" in the original phrase tells us that in this context "merry" does not function as an adjective describing the gentlemen in question. In the sixteenth century, "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" meant "God Rest You Joyfully, Gentlemen" or, as contemporary English speakers might be more likely to say, "God Keep You Joyous, Gentlemen" (for the phrase "Merry Christmas" in differentlanguages, see Merry Christmas and Happy New Year).

Further Reading

Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990.
References in periodicals archive ?
He posed question why were the political leaders were making merry when masses were facing calamity.
This does not mean that Muslims are prohibited from making merry on Eid.
And the police are making merry of the loopholes in the excise laws.
PESHAWAR -- The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Minister for Culture and Information Mian Iftikhar Hussain has said that Pakhtuns' culture programmes do not aim at making merry rather it was a conscious message to the entire world that we love our culture, art and hate terrorism.
Why not see in 2012 in style with Jools Holland who'll be making merry music with help from the breakout stars of the year, Jessie J, The Vaccines and Aloe Blacc, plus legends including Ruby Turner, Sandie Shaw and Cyndi Lauper (BBC2 11.
Gough also trained the granddam Making Merry (Toms The Best-Tinrah Princess), a smashing marathon sort who in the space of eight weeks broke clocks at Waterford (730 and 790 yards), Shelbourne (750) and Harold's Cross (750).
She's also blessed with a distinctive voice and knows hows to handle her guitar, extracting wonderful whoops and wails out of her instrument, making merry use of her myriad pedals.
And in-between, There comes a time when goblins can be seen, Having fun and making Merry Halloween.
He escaped from prison and spent many years making merry in Brazil.
Who would want anything to do with a person who, although he has been sent to study, manages to earn a few hundred dollars driving taxis and spends them drinking or making merry in the worst possible ways," he said.
Making merry often is synonymous with overindulging--whether from holiday feasts or rich desserts or alcoholic beverages.