Sunday, December 4, 2016

The History of "Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy Holidays" in Crawford County

"Hold up there, Santa. How should we greet you?"
Not so long ago I was admonished for wishing somebody a "Happy Holiday" instead of a "Happy Thanksgiving."

"I don't celebrate 'holidays,'" the person told me. "I celebrate Thanksgiving and then I celebrate Christmas. I hate it when people like you wish me 'Happy Holidays.' It's a made-up, politically-correct phrase that you should stop using!"

After promising myself that a person like me might never bother wishing a person like that a happy anything, ever again, I got to thinking about the two phrases: Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. I wondered if there might be a way to track their use over time within Crawford County.

Turns out you can. Sort of.

One of the on-line research tools I use is the Newspaper Archive. It allows me to do text searches within newspapers across the world. As such, it's useful for all kinds of things, from looking up birth announcements and obituaries to figuring out more obscure information like the first time the phrase "microwave oven" was used in a newspaper (The Freeport (IL) Journal Standard, Mar 17, 1955, pg 18, col. 5, "Magazine Predicts Microwave Oven is Just Around the Corner.").

But the Newspaper Archive isn't perfect. It's database does not include all newspapers. Looking up information in Crawford County can be problematic because it contains only The Titusville Herald. Don't get me wrong, The Herald's a great source, but it can be inadequate, particularly through periods in the 1880's when Herald editors sometimes completely ignored what was happening in the rest of the county, and especially what was happening in Meadville. The lack of any other county newspapers makes the archive a crippled tool. Still, it's 'way better than nothing.

The start of our data set is 1865, when The Herald began. The end is early 2013, the last edition that's in the archive. I did separate searches for "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays" through each decade and the numbers plot like this:

The vertical axis is the number of times the phrase was used. The horizontal axis is the start of each decade. Over the years, The Titusville Herald used "Merry Christmas" far more often when compared to "Happy Holidays" (3,993 v 827 times), but it's very easy to see that "Happy Holidays," in red, has grown significantly more popular over the past few decades.

The early 2000's saw the first protests over the use of "Happy Holidays." In 2005, The Catholic League announced a national boycott of Wal-Mart. Seems a customer emailed the store complaining that she was greeted with "Happy Holidays." One of the company's employees replied with a message stating that Christmas wasn't a really a Christian holiday, but instead, "a mix of world religions." The boycott was called off once Wal-Mart apologized and got rid of the employee in question.

It appears true that "Happy Holidays" is used far more often than it used to be. Does that make it "a made-up, politically-correct phrase" that people like me should stop using?

The first Crawford County use of "Happy Holidays" that I can find is in the "Brevities" section on page 2 of the December 22, 1884, Titusville Morning Herald: "Miss Lena, oldest daughter of [the] Hon. D. Emory, of this city, returned Friday evening from school at Buffalo, to spend happy holidays at home." The family was fairly well known in Titusville. Captain David Emory commanded the battery there.

"Happy Holidays" then begins cropping up in articles describing fond memories of Christmases past. In the 1950's it starts being included in end-of-the-year national-brand advertisements for items such as Camel Cigarettes and General Electric Appliances.

Bigger companies seemed to adopt "Happy Holidays" with gusto, probably because they knew that large numbers of their customers never celebrated Christmas, merry, or not. It was the banking industry that really hopped on the holiday bandwagon once they began merging into regional entities, but small businesses, like local car dealer Jeff Stroup, ran ads proclaiming "Happy Holidays!" In point of fact, either accidentally or on purpose, Mr. Stroup ran the same, exact ad for nearly 100 days in a row, thus throwing off the numbers for that decade.

So, what does all this mean? To start, "Happy Holidays" didn't begin its life as "a made-up, politically-correct phrase." Instead, it was in general use for more than a half-century before being usurped by advertisers. In Crawford County, it did come close to eclipsing newspaper use of "Merry Christmas," but it looks as if that trend is broken.

Let's step outside of the realm of newspapers, whose unfortunate decline is so eloquently illustrated by the graph above. In the digital world, a Google search of "Happy Holidays" yields more than 25-million results. "Merry Christmas" returns over 48-million hits. It's not even close.

Happy Holidays, everyone!


The Titusville Herald, Nov 12, 2005, p7, "Catholic League call off boycott of Wal-Mart."

The Titusville Herald, Jun 15, 2001, p15, advertisement, "Jeff Stroup Auto."

About the Author

Don Hilton is the second of three sons raised in Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania. After graduating from Conneaut Lake High School, he attended Thiel College, majoring in both Philosophy and Geology, and later earned a Master of Science in Geology from Kent State University. Over the course of his life, Don’s broad mix of experiences have included: passenger boat pilot, gravel pit lab technician, sweetheart, husband, post-graduate research fellow, geologist, statistician, teacher, stand-up comedian, computer support analyst, father, martial arts instructor, freelance writer, and published author. Don has published several works of local history such as Murders, Mysteries, and History of Crawford County, Pennsylvania 1800 to 1956 and Conneaut Lake Ferry Tails. His most recent book, Trumpets in the East, is a must read for any enthusiast of historical fiction. More of Don’s books and writing can be found at

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