Over the past several weeks, the English department at Wieners+Wieners has been very busy indeed. No, we haven’t quite been Santa’s little helpers, but we’ve been translating a seemingly endless string of Christmas cards into English for our clients. This year, of course, these Christmas greetings are all coloured by the pandemic. Now, more than ever, standard seasonal phrases are endowed with a deeper and more meaningful edge as we look back on a challenging year and also look forward – with gratitude, hope and positivity – to better times ahead.
However, you just can’t imagine what a cultural affair this enterprise of translating Christmas cards actually is. Have you ever wondered how the typical German phrase Wir wünschen Ihnen besinnliche Weihnachten und einen guten Start ins neue Jahr could possibly translate to something as simple as ‘Merry Christmas and Happy New Year’? Well, the unreflected explanation is that it’s just what we say in English. But upon closer examination, you might ask: what happened to Besinnlichkeit? Is the Christmas season not a time of peace, tranquillity and contemplation in English-speaking countries?
Well, looking at Anglo-American culture, you will find that the holiday season largely prioritises other feelings and customs – namely, fun! In this case, ‘merry’ actually means ‘characterised by festivity and enjoyment’.* In the times before the coronavirus, it was traditionally a season of joy – a time of celebration, festive gatherings with family and friends, wild and crazy office parties (anyone remember those?), Secret Santa gift exchanges, carolling, lights, decorations and generally being ‘merry and bright’. In fact, consider the titles of some of the most popular English-language Christmas songs: ‘Joy to the World’, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’, ‘A Holly Jolly Christmas’, ‘Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ and ‘Deck the Halls’, whose second line is the ridiculously playful ‘Fa la la la la, la la la la!’ You get the picture. Of course, there are also traditional religious Christmas carols such as ‘Silent Night’, which actually comes from the German original Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. But overall, mainstream culture tends to be caught up in the festive season of good cheer. By the way, in this context ‘cheer’ means ‘food and drink provided for a festive occasion’, which hints at an additional meaning of ‘merry’ – ‘slightly and good-humouredly drunk’!
So is there any possible variation to ‘Merry Christmas’? Sure, a little bit: Brits also say ‘Happy Christmas’ and North Americans sometimes opt for ‘Happy Holidays’ in order to include other religions’ celebrations around this time of year. ‘Season’s Greetings’ is of course a festive phrase that people often write on cards, but you don’t actually say it. So if in doubt, just stick to ‘Merry Christmas’ – you simply can’t go wrong.
Many of our clients also ask us about the correct way to capitalise these festive greetings – it can seem confusing because there is so much variation (and inconsistency!) in how this is done out there in the real world. But here is the rule: if the greeting stands alone – with no article (like ‘a’ or ‘the’), then you capitalise it: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! If there is an article before the greeting, then it should be lower-cased (except for the word ‘Christmas’, of course, as it is a proper noun): We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!
And if you’d like to personalise that standard phrase just a little bit? Well, you can always add some extra adverbs and adjectives, like in the following: We wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and successful new year!
And that is exactly what we in the English department would like to wish all of you – with an emphasis on healthy, of course!
* We consulted the Oxford dictionary for all definitions given in this article.