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"merry" Christmas An essay on the actual meaning of the word "merry".

#1 Guest_jacmartins_*

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Posted 26 December 2005 - 10:30 PM

Holy 'merry'? Not if you consider its bawdy history
Elizabethan England first applied the word to holidays


A War on Christmas is being waged in the United States, says a new book
by a Fox News anchor. Should cards and stores wish us a vaguely
religious-sounding "Merry Christmas" or a vaguely secular "Happy Holidays"?

In this war of words, it is worth looking at the far from reverent
history of that little word "merry."

When I was in elementary school in the early 1950s, a teacher told our
class that when we wished people a merry Christmas, we were expressing
the hope that they would experience the same joy that Jesus' mother felt
at the birth of her son: that is, a Mary Christmas. It took me decades
to realize just how wrong my teacher was. "Merry" refers not to Mary but
to mirth, and when the term first became linked with Christmas, its
connotations were anything but holy.

That linkage took hold during the Elizabethan period a time and place
we still think of as Merry England. Before that period, the word "merry"
sometimes meant cheerful, but by the late 1500s it had come to suggest
behavior that was cheerfully boisterous, "mirth" especially associated
with the effects of alcohol or even uninhibited sexuality. In 1576, it
was reported that one man started a fight because he was "merry with
drink." More than a century later, another Englishman reported that
"drunk" was a more polite word for what "the vulgar call merry."

In Elizabethan England, "Merry Andrew" was a clown. "Merry main" was a
game of dice. A "merry night" was given up to revelry. "Merry-begot"
referred to a :censor:. And a "merry-bout" was a common euphemism for
sexual intercourse.

Merry was first commonly applied to seasonal festivities in those years
and with the same connotations. In an alcohol-drenched scene in
Shakespeare's play King Henry IV (Part 2), one soused character wishes
the equally tipsy Sir John Falstaff "a merry Shrove-tide." (Shrove
Tuesday, the day before Lent, is better known to us as Mardi Gras.) That
character regales Falstaff by singing, "Praise God for the coming year,
when flesh is cheap and females dear, and lusty lads roam here and
there, so merrily."

Aside from Christmas, it was the month of May that Elizabethans most
often dubbed "merry," as madrigals attested. Often the merriment was
sexual. With the season bursting into flower, young folks of both
genders seized the opportunity and ritualistically disappeared into the
woods on the night before the first of May. One disgusted Englishman
insisted in 1583 that out "of (every) fourty, three-score, or a hundred
maides going to the woode over night, there have scarcely the thirde
parte of them returned home again undefiled."

And when those maids did return home, it was to engage in lewd dances
around the phallic Maypole. (In New England, a bawdy Falstaffian
gentleman named Thomas Morton set up an enormous Maypole in full view of
nearby Plymouth Colony and danced around it with local Indian women
atop a hill he dared to name "Merrymount." Plymouth leaders arrested
Morton and sent him back to England.)

Christmas in the Elizabethan era was an equally "merry" season. When the
Puritans seized political power in England in 1644, they made it illegal
to celebrate the holiday, and in 1659, the rulers of Massachusetts did
the same. (The law was rescinded under outside pressure in 1681.)

Puritans had sound theological reasons for suppressing Christmas: Jesus
himself never proposed that Christians observe his birth (as he did ask
them to commemorate his death), nor did the Bible offer even the
slightest clue about what time of year he was actually born. But the
most powerful reason for the Puritans' ban on Christmas had to do with
holiday merriment. Boston minister Increase Mather wrote in 1687 that
"the generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a
manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ." And Increase's
son Cotton Mather observed a few years later that "the feast of Christ's
nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking and in all
Licentious Liberty."

An English clergyman claimed that the common Christmas ritual of mumming
involved men and women cross-dressing and roaming from house to house to
"make merry with them in disguise." That clergyman insisted that the
singing of Christmas carols was just a cover for mixed companies of
young people to engage in "Rioting, Chambering, and Wantonness."
("Chambering" was a euphemism for the indoor equivalent of spending May
nights out in the woods.) An Elizabethan bishop, Hugh Latimer, put the
matter most succinctly: "Men dishonour Christ more in the 12 days of
Christmas, than in all the 12 months besides."

During the 19th century, new Christmas rituals were devised that tamed
the old seasonal revelry. (Whether they brought the Christ back into
Christmas is another question.) But "Merry Christmas" has remained the
greeting of choice although not without resistance, even before our
own multicultural era.

In the 1820s, when the new rituals were beginning to take shape, Clement
Clarke Moore wrote what would become the most beloved of all American
Christmas verses, A Visit from St. Nicholas. It's interesting that the
Santa Claus who so magically appears in that poem has dimples that are
"merry" (perhaps befitting his elfish personage), but the departing wish
Santa chooses to bestow is for a "Happy Christmas."

Is it possible that Moore, the pious son of an Episcopal bishop,
remembered something about the word "merry" that some of today's
evangelical Christians have managed to forget?

Nissenbaum, a retired professor of history at the University of
Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote "The Battle for Christmas."

#2 User is offline   jamaicabraden 

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Posted 02 March 2011 - 09:49 AM

I know it's too late but would want to say belated Merry Christmas and thanks for sharing this essay.

Balsam Hill reviews

#3 User is offline   liuhua 

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Posted 19 July 2011 - 08:49 PM


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