Saying "Merry Christmas" in the UK

I’m American, and I recently took on a part-time job working with a bunch of people in the UK. The team includes one other person from the US and all the rest are native Britishers who live in and around London.

We have a weekly checkin meeting. This week’s was the last before January. At the end they all started saying “Merry Christmas, everybody!” “Hope you have a wonderful Christmas!” and the like.

I was surprised. In my world (with one exception, that being my church congregation) I hear and say almost exclusively “Happy Holidays.” In the jobs I’ve had, the jobs my wife has had, the community organizations I’ve been involved with, the schools my kids attended–very seldom is there a mention of Christmas, and when it is it’s directed to a specific person who is known to celebrate Christmas.

I know the whole Happy Holidays/Merry Christmas thing is a big controversy in some circles, and I’m not interested in having that debate here. FTR, I was fine with being told Merry Christmas (and would have been fine being wished Happy Holidays instead). But I was a bit taken aback that the professional norms in this organization in this case were so very different from the norms I’m used to. So I’m curious–is it common in the UK for people to wish each other a Merry Christmas in a context like this? Or are these folks exceptions?

Thanks! I’ve been in the UK exactly once and no one wished me a merry Christmas. Or Happy holidays either. Of course, it was June…

I don’t have a professional job so I can’t speak to that directly, but Merry Christmas is completely ubiquitous. “Happy Holidays” would be so weird that the implication would be that you’re doing an impression of an American.

I’ve been working in a college in the UK, and all my colleagues have been commenting on how hard it is this year to not automatically wish the class ‘Happy Christmas’, as one of the students is a Jehovah’s witness, who makes a big deal out of not celebrating- they’re pretty well the only group that cares.

For an awful lot of us, it’s barely connected to religion anyway- and as the religion it’s associated with is the national religion, there’s not much pushback, even from those who don’t personally celebrate. I’ve been wished a merry Christmas by Muslim neighbours before now, who we wished Eid Mubarak at the appropriate time.

Just to tease out one possible confounding factor - in the UK (and Ireland) it is more traditional to say “Happy Christmas” than “Merry Christmas”. In fact, that is what I expected this thread to be about. It is not very strange to hear someone say “Merry Christmas” - it is an acceptable alternative - but “Happy Christmas” is more common.

On to the real substance of your question (and speaking about Ireland rather than the UK): wishing people Happy Christmas is not controversial here in the way that it seems to have become in the US. People who are not religious wish each other Happy Christmas all the time. If I knew someone was Jewish or Muslim or whatever I probably wouldn’t wish them Happy Christmas but I wouldn’t say “Happy Holidays” either. That would be completely alien to me.

Having grown up in the U.K., I still have “Happy Christmas” ingrained in me as the standard greeting, and it’s not something I’ve made a big effort to try to correct since moving here. It has no religious significance for me. And I don’t understand why it’s generally seen as non-inclusive to say Merry Christmas, when putting up a giant fuck-off Christmas tree in (say) Rockefeller Center, or constantly blasting Christmas music in shopping centers, is fine?

Happy Christmas is for everyone in the UK and is simply a polite, seasonal greeting when everyone is looking forward to a holiday and bit of a party. When you are in party mood, it becomes Merry Christmas.

UK professional life is not quite as uptight as in the US. At Christmas time there is also the rather British institution known as the Christmas Party. This takes place in the office itself, or they hire a hotel or you have a dinner. After a long year of being on your best behaviour, it is time when the formal rules are suspended, the hierarchy relaxes and people let their hair down by getting very merry indeed.

It is not co-incidental that January is the most popular time for changing jobs.

The goings-on a office Christmas parties can lead to the consumation of a long held lusts and the airing of festering resentments about collegues and managers. People really do not want to show their face again after they got just a little too merry at the Christmas ‘Do’ and disgraced themselves with excessive, career limiting behaviour.

I cannot imagine much fun being had in a place that is obsessively observant about respectful gestures to include all potential ‘out groups’ in so no-one can take offence. Well intentioned, perhaps, but that would make for a very socially sterile atmosphere.

British/Irish/Australian/NZ culture has a tendenacy towards Bacchanalia. They can be party animals. Christianity built churches and celebrated festivals on top of older religions. Finishing off the abundance of food and drink in mad party at the end of the year, before hunkering down for the worst of the winter is pretty ingrained.

Sometimes this did not sit well with the prevailing religious sentiment. The Puritans famously banned Christmas in England and Scotland during the Reformation. Many took their ideas with them to America. Perhaps that tendancy towards prohibition and a public show of virtue persists in Corporate America?

There is another big difference.

In the US employers have much more power over their employees in way that that would be regarded as highly unusual in the UK and many other countries. Where laws guarantee employment rights this discourages a hire/fire culture. Health care provision is also little to do with the employer, it is provided and paid for by the state and sick pay is mandatory. So indeed are public holidays and paid leave. The employer has far less strings they can pull.

Well, at least, that is what it is like during normal times. Not many merry Christmas parties this year.

I never hear people saying “happy Christmas”. It’s almost always “merry Christmas” or just a conversational “have a great Christmas”.

Christmas is a national holiday and everything’s closed. My family is Jewish and even we come together, exchange presents, wear paper hats and eat turkey. The kosher butcher gets a job lot of turkeys in and usually sells out (according to my mum). Only the religious Christians go to church, everyone else is getting drunk and opening presents. I think it’s as much an evolution of the pagan festival as it is a religious occasion.

I suppose some cultures do nothing but it’s a crappy day not to organise anything. There’s nothing to do except watch Christmas TV and be with your family.

In the antipodean outpost of Britain the standard greeting is “Merry Christmas”, and in it’s full expression “Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”.

“Happy Christmas” might have more currency amongst the smart young things, though not within my brood but “Happy Holiday” likely considered to be just odd or the indelible mark of a newly arrived 'merkin.

We quite like our holidays here, especially if they can be turned into long weekends but don’t really think of the gazetted days off like the Queens Birthday Holiday, or the Friday Before Grand Final Day Holiday et al as being especially happy.



I’m in Western Canada and we say “Merry Christmas” all the time. Even my Muslim coworker.

There’s another point, that to us “holidays” are either your big summer trip somewhere, or the public holiday Mondays through the year, often dedicated by custom to Saints DIY and Traffic Jam.

The fact that “Christmas” is an almost entirely secularised event focussed on family, feasting and a nod to generalised “good works” means it’s not exclusively, let alone aggressively, Christian. And the main minority religious celebrations are at quite other times of year.

The war against Christmas has been limited to the US so far. Christmas seems to be holding it’s own in this fight.

UK here, definitely “happy” rather than “merry” christmas and yes, it is said to everyone everywhere.

No distinction made to religion or type of observancy.And why should there be? The Christmas holiday is referring to a pretty secular period over which people get together and workplaces close and good stuff is on the telly. It has precious little to do with christianity and far more to do with a good old-fashioned mid-winter pagan knees-up and that’s relevant to everyone.

If you take offence at being wished “happy christmas” when you don’t celebrate it or don’t like it then you are a pretty sad individual.

Also true if you take offense at being wished “happy holidays.”

Around here (upstate NY USA in case you don’t know to click on my avatar) most people simply assume that everybody’s Christian and the standard greeting is Merry Christmas, whether it’s in a work or personal context. I occasionally respond to that with Happy Hannukah if the timing is right, or with Happy or Merry Holidays or New Year or if I’m feeling daring or know the people Merry Solstice, and occasionally get some strange looks for that.

Fifty-odd years ago, there was a satirical song on TV about all the commercialised Christmas, with the punchline “What it’s got to do with Jesus, Jesus only knows”

This gets said every year, and it’s nonsense every time. It’s OK to wish Happy Christmas to a group of people that you don’t generally know as Christians, but there’s a limit. If you know I’m not Christian and don’t celebrate Christmas, and you still wish me Happy Christmas I’m not going to yell at you, but I will let you know that it’s not appropriate. I appreciate the sentiment, but would also appreciate you caring enough to get it right.

For those interested in the history of Christmas, I came across this account of the time when it was banned by the Puritan authorities in England and Scotland. It was very much a Protestant v Catholic thing following the English Civil war. But the habit of banning cultural celebrations associated with a rival political movement is as old as politics.

I guess the US reticence to recognise Christmas celebrations may be related to the US Constitution, that discourages religion expression by the state this extends to the organisations it funds or does business with. Quite a good idea at the time given the religious wars that raged across Europe.

That simply does not exist in the UK Constitution, which has the Church of England branch of Protestant Christianity as the state religion. While this was once highly politicised and a matter of life and death, that is so much history. These days the culture is not particularly pious and people look forward to a frenzy of gift exchanging, feasting and parties. In fact there is a tendancy to eye other religions and their festivals with regard to partying, feasting and gift exchanging opportunities. Of course it can be dressed up as an gesture towards inclusivity, but lining up a series excuses for a day off work is tempting. Lets see…Christmas, Easter, Diwali, Eid, Hanukka… lots of possibilities. I heard of one man who pestered his Human Resources department claiming to be Druid and wanted the Summer solstice off work for his religious observance at Stone Henge. The Puritans would have made short work of such sentiments…

When Christmas went underground:

Everything stops in the UK on Christmas day, even in a city like London. This can come as a bit of shock to visitors and an explanation why flights to the UK seem to be at bargain prices on that day. Trapped at the airport is not the happiest way to spend Christmas day.

That’s a different beast altogether. That’s someone with knowledge of your perfectly reasonable preference and their purposeful intent to go against it when there is no need to do so. Intent is everything.

There isn’t much reticence, we recognize the difference between secular and religious celebrations of Christmas, the use of ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’ was intended to be inclusive, not exclusive, but it will always make a great political issue. It’s the two subjects polite people aren’t supposed to talk about wrapped up into one.

What US reticence to recognise Christmas celebrations? They’re ubiquitous and inescapable and go on for months.