In the common parlance of modern America, the word “jolly” has fallen distinctly out of use. While words like “fun” and “happy” abound in everyday conversation, “jolly” is, in the minds of many, inexorably tied to Christmas. Traditional carols have kept the word alive in reference to the festivities of this season; one would be hard pressed, however, to find instances of Americans casually describing anything other than Christmas celebrations or St. Nicholas as “jolly.” This decline in usage is a pity, because “jolly” is a gem of a word. The tragic misfortune of “jolly” falling by the wayside as a common adjective and my belief that it is a term of incredible beauty and rich significance have led me to deem it a worthy labor to delve into a detailed definition of this word.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary states that the origin of “jolly” is “probably from Old Norse jōl, midwinter festival.” While the connections between this possible origin and the common Christmastide connotations of “jolly” are intriguing, the Oxford English Dictionary judges this theory of origin “extremely doubtful.” Less murky is the word’s more immediate origin, the Old French jolif, meaning “festive, merry; amorous; pretty.” Over time, the multiple meanings of jolif have coalesced into one English concept of jollity. “Jolly” certainly means neither “amorous” nor “pretty,” simply speaking. It is clear to see, however, that all these definitions of jolif have contributed to the development of the definition of jollity, which is a certain kind of joy. To be jolly is not merely to be happy. Indeed, he who is jolly is necessarily happy, but he who is happy is not necessarily jolly. The word “happiness” can denote merely contentment or satisfaction, but “jollity” is never limited to such states of being. Jollity presupposes such happiness, and builds upon it.
To be jolly is to possess a joyful buoyancy of spirit, to be full of warm and energetic cheerfulness. There is, however, a misunderstanding to be avoided at all costs in this definition. The cheerfulness that characterizes jollity is never to be confused with the cheerfulness which is bred of frivolity. The spirit of a jolly man is inimical to frivolity. Jollity is born of an appreciation of the good things that life has given to us; the recognition of the goodness of life fills a man with joy, and puts him in a jolly humour. To be jolly thus presupposes an attitude of gratitude, an attitude which is essentially thoughtful, and which leads a man to engage in wholesome and fruitful merriment. J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits provide an example from fiction; their response to the goods of everyday life, such as food, drink, and tobacco, is one of gratitude and exultation.
A frivolous man, on the other hand, cannot be jolly. He is not thoughtful enough to have any real appreciation for the beauty and goodness around him. Rather, he seeks his own gratification by whatever means he can contrive. The things of this world have no meaning except insofar as they are means to bring about his own satisfaction. His own attempts at merriment are hollow and meaningless, hedonistic attempts to gorge himself on as much enjoyment as he can lay his hands on. Such a man’s spirits are not buoyant but weightless; his “happiness” is not effervescent, but evanescent. With such a warped perspective on life, the frivolous man can never attain joy. It stands to reason, then, that he cannot attain jollity.
To be jolly is truly a profound thing. It is to recognize the winsomeness and levity present in the world around us, and to appreciate it by responding with an exuberance of joy. Jollity, in its proper time and place, is an inestimable treasure. The Book of Ecclesiastes declares: “Go then, and eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with gladness: because thy works please God.” The man who is alive to jollity takes this command to heart. Realizing the goodness of God’s world, he responds in jubilation.
Even in this secular wasteland of modern America, where the true meaning of the holiday is widely ignored, the celebration of Christmas is nevertheless widespread. The festival is kept with great fervor and gusto, even by those to whom the birth of Christ means nothing. It seems clear to me that what motivates these continual celebrations is the hunger for jollity. This “Christmas spirit” is a thing of such grandeur that even those who are ignorant of its ultimate source crave it. The pure and unadulterated joy which provokes such wholesome cheerfulness is so beautiful that it cannot help but be attractive. Only by spurning frivolity and empty hedonism, however, and by adopting the position of gratitude in the face of the beauty of human life, can men attain true jollity.
 “Jolly,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Accessed 10 November 2022, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/jolly
 “Jolly,” Online Etymology Dictionary, Accessed 10 November 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=jolly
 Douay-Rheims Version, Ecclesiastes 9:7.
This article appeared first on The Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted here with permission.
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