Friday, 2 December 2016

Capitalisation: the holiday edition

I’ve written about capitalisation here before, but as we approach Christmas I saw an opportunity to expand on the subject.

Everywhere you look, you’ll probably see that most holiday greetings are capitalised:
Merry Christmas
Seasons Greetings
Happy New Year

The reason that holiday greetings are capitalised is because the holidays themselves are proper nouns (Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, etc.), and the greeting (happy, merry, etc.) is usually at the beginning of the sentence or standing alone, and therefore requires a capital as well.

But sometimes we see these greetings in the middle of a sentence:
“We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

Some of those capital letters don’t actually belong, and these can probably be regarded as stylistic exceptions. When there are holidays and events, style can trump grammar because it’s often more aesthetically pleasing. But in the example sentence above, we can and should strive to write it correctly because it is a proper sentence as opposed to a standalone greeting. It should look like this:
“We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year.”

Note that “new year” isn’t capitalised because I’m not referring to the holiday. Instead, I’m saying that I hope the upcoming new year is a happy one. The new year itself isn’t a holiday; only New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are holidays. So, when you say “Happy New Year”, that is a holiday greeting and is the equivalent of “Merry Christmas”. But if you wish someone’s new year will go well, the capitals aren’t needed. I explained a similar rule in my other post, comparing generic use of “bridge” with “Sydney Harbour Bridge”. Depending on context and meaning, capitalisation changes.

We see this with “Happy Birthday” and “Happy Anniversary” as well. One’s birthday or anniversary is not an official holiday and not at all a proper noun, yet we continue to write “Happy Birthday, ____”, when, in reality, if we were following capitalisation rules accurately, it would be “Happy birthday, ____”. Again, this seems to be excused for the sake of style.

The rule I recommend and prefer to follow is this:

If you are saying a standalone greeting to someone, use capitals for each part of the greeting -
Happy Birthday/Anniversary
Merry Christmas
Happy New Year

But if you are writing out a full sentence in regards to holidays and birthdays, only capitalise proper nouns -
I hope you have a happy birthday.
Enjoy the new year.
Have a wonderful Christmas.

Having said all of this, it is a stylistic choice more often than not, and I'm sure the recipients of your greetings won't notice a minor capitalisation rule like this. But I still think it's a valuable thing to be aware of, much like all of my other blog topics over the past year or so. Thank you to those who have been reading and supporting my blog and my work. I hope you do have a happy holiday season and enjoy the new year.
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