Season’s Greetings! Holiday Punctuation Tips

This is the time of year we are busily writing our holiday messages, so it’s important to note that those cheery holiday messages can be a slippery slope into punctuation errors. Read on to learn how to perfect your holiday greetings.

When to Capitalize

Different sources of reference have differing opinions on when to capitalize holiday terms. Any time you refer to the actual holiday by name, always capitalize it as you would a proper name. Below are examples from Merriam Webster Dictionary:

We’re spending Christmas with my parents.

We had a very happy Christmas this year.

I wish you all a merry Christmas.

You might notice that “merry” is not capitalized in the final example. Reference sources vary on this, and the Cambridge Dictionary’s example shows to capitalize “merry”:

I hope you have a very Merry Christmas!

The greeting cards I am mailing have the phrase capitalized. In this case, it’s probably more a matter of stylistic choice than following any specific reference source. Other common holiday greeting terms, happy holidays, merry Christmas, season’s greetings, are not capitalized. But note the apostrophe in “season’s”; it is the possessive form when used with “greetings.”

“Happy New Year” follows the same rule, so you would not capitalize “Happy” – unless it begins the sentence. You would include an apostrophe when using the terms New Year’s Eve, or New Year’s Day. According to Chicago Manual of Style, also capitalize “Eve” and “Day” when referring to the actual days.

When wishing someone a happy Hanukkah, knowing how to spell Hanukkah correctly is the most common question. According to Merriam Webster, common variants of the spelling are Chanukah or Hanukah. Why so many different ways to spell Hanukkah? The spelling often depends upon your religion, and most traditionalists will spell it “Chanukah.” In America, the most common spelling is “Hanukkah,” as this is the spelling used by the Library of Congress.

Other Holiday Terms

If you are planning to enjoy a glass of bubbly on New Year’s Eve, the word is capitalized – Champagne. Why is a drink name capitalized? This particular drink originates from the province in France – Champagne, France, so it would be capitalized.

Are you planning to give Grandma the gift of a beautiful red holiday plant? If you include a note, “I hope you enjoy this poinsettia,” is poinsettia capitalized?

The poinsettia plant is named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist and physician who was the first United States Ambassador to Mexico and who introduced the plant into the United States in 1828. So logic would tell you if it was named for a person, it would be capitalized, right? It depends. The Associated Press style manual capitalizes Poinsettia, but plant names are usually not capitalized, even when they are named for a person (the name of the species is not capitalized but the genus is). The only exception is when proper nouns are used, as in black-eyed Susan.

The real problem with poinsettia is the spelling, which ends with “ia.” We commonly pronounce the plant with an “a” as in poinsetta, but technically, even that pronunciation is incorrect. It’s poinsett-i-a.

Happy holidays from the MCC Writing Center!

(For further reading on the origins of Christmas, visit Encyclopedia Britannica. )

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