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 En-glish were wishing each other a festive and joyful holiday. The six-teenth-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 different languages, see MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR).