LANGUAGE WARNING: The following post contains exactly one word (used twice) which may offend, but if you look at it in context, you will see that it is not simply included to shock or offend, but it just happens to be the correct word for that scenario.
I, like so many other entirely weird people in this world of ours, enjoy, among my other annual celebrations of Christmas, seeking out and watching as many different versions of Dickens’ Christmas Carol as I can. There are venerable favorites, like those starring Reginald Owen and Alistair Sim, more family-friendly interpretations featuring Kermit the Frog and Mickey Mouse, and some less mainstream versions which are particular favorites of my family, such as the 1999 made-for-TV version with Patrick Stewart and the musical Scrooge starring Albert Finney. I could go on to explain the vast appeal of this story over the decades and expound on my personal feelings about it…but I’m not gonna. Instead, I’m going to talk about something which is important to the understanding of Scrooge’s story, but which is largely misunderstood by contemporary audiences:
The meaning of the word “Humbug.”
It does not, as many people believe, simply mean “nonsense.” Nonsense has too nice a connotation to do the word justice. Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss dealt in nonsense. That’s too playful a word for Ebenezer Scrooge.
Besides Scrooge, one of the most well-known users of this now-defunct word was P. T. Barnum, the great American showman who used the word to describe the…less-than-entirely-truthful descriptions of the performers and attractions he would present to his gullib—I mean, “eager” audiences.
By way of an example: He once sold a cartload of white salmon with the slogan, “Guaranteed never to go pink,” which is actually pretty clever.
The word was also commonly employed by the great magician Harry Houdini who, in the latter part of his all-too-brief life, dedicated his time and talents to debunking frauds and charlatans, such as those who held phony séances and claimed they could communicate with the dead. Practices of this sort were referred to as “humbug” and they angered Houdini to no end. When comic magicians Penn & Teller created a TV series in which they, following in their hero’s footstep, go around debunking frauds, hypocrites, phonies and other assorted liars, they originally wanted to call it “Humbug.” They chose instead a word which is more common in contemporary language, but which conveyed the same basic idea:
You see, when Ebenezer calls Christmas “humbug,” he isn’t merely saying that Christmas is stupid or a waste of time…I mean, he is saying that, but that’s not all he’s saying. Because in Scrooge’s mind, not only is Christmas a stupid waste of time, but everyone else in the world is fully aware of the fact, but that they simply pretend that Christmas is something more meaningful and important in order to get something for nothing or to avoid work and responsibility. To Scrooge, that’s all life is: Work, responsibility, and the accumulation of wealth. And he believes that to be common knowledge which people simply ignore and disguise with false sincerity in order to get away with throwing a party for no reason.
No villain thinks they’re a villain, someone cleverer than I once said, and that is true of Scrooge. When he looks at himself, he doesn’t see the squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching, covetous old sinner that Dickens describes. He sees a hard-working, pious, honest man. The only truly honest man in London since the death of Mr. Marley.
So, to sum up, when Fred comes into the counting house and says “Merry Christmas, uncle. God save you!” and Scrooge says, “Christmas? Bah! Humbug!” he is not only dismissing the importance and the meaning of Christmas, but also calling his nephew a liar and putting those who wish to celebrate this joyous season on the same level as con artists who trick people in mourning into thinking they can talk to their dead relatives again for a nominal fee. This is why Fred is so shocked when he hears the word: “Christmas a humbug? You can’t mean that, Uncle, I am sure.”
After all, wouldn’t you be a little shocked if your elderly uncle announced casually that Christmas was bullshit?...well, maybe not, but it's still a great way to ruin a family dinner.