What does Merry Christmas mean? The first widespread usage of the greeting Merry Christmas apparently began in 1843 with the publishing of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Not surprisingly, the greeting first appeared on Christmas cards that same year. The idea behind this phrase is that Christmas should be a happy, joyous time. So when you wish someone a Merry Christmas, you are, in fact, offering a blessing to them for a merry or happy occasion. For Christians, this is where it gets interesting. The annual celebration of Christ’s birth is not directly commanded in Scripture. However, we do have a good example to follow in the proclamation of the angels announcing Christ’s birth. We looked briefly at this announcement, recorded in Luke 2:14, in the last post. The glorious pronouncement by the angels is also anticipated in Psalm 98:4-9:
Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the LORD with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn–
shout for joy before the LORD, the King.
Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
Let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.
This psalm was the basis of the carol by Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World.” Celebrating the birth of Christ really is a wonderful and appropriate activity. This question then arises: when you tell someone “Merry Christmas” do they have this biblical understanding of why it is fitting to be joyful? The psalm builds to a crescendo of praise, culminating in joy that Christ will come to judge the people of the earth with equity. The joy is in Christ’s righteous judgment. This is closely connected to the praise of the angels in Luke. God will bring peace to those on whom he has blessed with favor. In other words, peace comes to those who have believed and embraced the gospel.
“Joy to the world,” another way to say “Merry Christmas,” keeps the gospel sharply in focus. In our culture, Christmas is a time of joy and celebration. Unfortunately, for most this joy is tied to earthly gifts and treasures. So, sadly, when Christmas Day is past, the joy of earthly treasure fades quickly. Thus, when you say “Merry Christmas” to someone, look for a way to speak of the real reason for joy, the real reason for being merry. You will not be able to give this gospel news to everyone you speak to, but there will be opportunities to do so if you are looking for them. One of the best ways to find these opportunities is to remember that the reason for the Christmas celebration is rooted in the gospel message. Why should Christmas be merry? Why should the world be joyful? Because Christ has come to earth to save his people from their sins. Talk to your children about this, about the real reason Christmas is merry. Read again the biblical exclamations of praise about Christ in Luke 2:14 and in Psalm 98.
Yes, giving and receiving presents is special; decorations are festive and fun. But if we focus only on the temporal gifts that will fade and decay, we do not speak of the ultimate reason for joy at Christmas. Please join with me in asking God to make Christmas a time when we truly proclaim joy to a lost world. As the carol proclaims – Joy to the world, the Lord has come! Merry Christmas!