I’m not happy that this essay falls on New Year’s Day. Since I’ve been writing these musings (or a-musings when I get lucky) since 2020, I’ve already covered the holiday three times before. Please do not feel bad if you can’t remember what I said — I, too, don’t have a clue. I thought about rereading those essays and then taking a new angle for this one, but looking over something I’ve already written, for the sake of revising it, has all the allure of being handed a dead body and being told, “Here, perk it up a little.”
Being a Word Nerd since forever, I’ve decided to concentrate on the “Happy” in “Happy New Year” and contrast it with the “Merry” of our holiday of one week past. We know the phrase “Merry Christmas” dates back to at least 1534, when an official’s December letter to Henry VIII begins with that salutation. In fact, Henry saw himself as The Merry Monarch — which seems fitting, as long as we overlook his two beheaded wives and the 450 priests he executed for not recognizing him as the new head of the Church. Merriment obviously had its limits with Henry.
And so the British wished each other Happy New Year and Merry Christmas until Queen Victoria’s reign three hundred years later, when suddenly a significant wedge of Brits began wishing each other both a Happy Christmas and a Happy New Year.
That wedge came from the upper crust of English society. Victoria became uneasy with anything “merry” since the term seemed far too boisterous and uninhibited and therefore (gasp) lower-class to her and her court’s ears. She was not amused. She therefore substituted “happy” for “merry” in her Christmas greetings for her family and other royals. To this day, King Charles only wishes others a “ Happy Christmas.” Ah, isn’t British condescension grand?
We Americans, when we noted the new royal disdain for a “Merry Christmas” two hundred years ago, doubled down on making sure our holiday greeting remained MERRY indeed, emphasizing the healthy classlessness of being a good-ol’ egalitarian “Amurrikan.” When Charles Dickens toured America in 1842, at the height of the Andrew-Jackson era of backwoodsmen, tobacco spittin’, and coonskin caps, he wrote to a friend back home how all the Yankees were bragging to him that America was a classless society. “Alas,” Dickens reported, “I am certainly convinced. As far as I can see, these Americans have no class whatsoever.”
Regardless of whether one is in the “Merry” or “Happy” Christmas camp, I think we all can agree that “Happy” is the perfect wish for any new year. New Year’s Day is a time for reflection, mostly on the happy times we shared with “auld acquaintances” and family.
I’ve always felt that true happiness can only be found when recalling our past. Happiness is not an experience; it is a memory. When we are actually living the joyous moments themselves, we feel delight, elation, glee — even euphoria perhaps. But the feeling of happiness is much more calm and cerebral. It occurs when we recall those best experiences of our lives and feel the lovely satisfaction that comes with the fond remembering. For me, happiness is watching the most exquisite and loving events of my life in a rear view mirror. What it lacks in excitement it more than makes up for in pure contentment. Granted, we can all be grateful in the present for all of our manifold blessings. But it is when I think about fond memories that my gratitude takes on a lovely sheen of nostalgia, and it is that which makes me happy.
For those of us who have lost the most important person in our life, happiness is still ours to hold dear when we remember any of the joyous little experiences that we shared with our beloved and that are still so vivid and powerful they remain with us for the rest of our lives. The poet John Keats called these memories “moments big as years.”
And so on this first day of 2024, I wish you a year overflowing with big-as-years moments that will later magically transform into a deep well of recollections that you will draw upon for lifelong happiness.