Most are familiar with the phrase “Bah! Humbug!” made famous by the miserly character Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens:
“A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.
“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”
He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.
“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure.”
“I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”
Many people mistake Scrooge’s use of the term “humbug” as an expression of his disgust or displeasure towards Christmas. But the word actually has a different meaning and provides a key understanding into Scrooge’s actual feeling towards Christmas.
The word “humbug” dates back to the mid-1700s, long before Dickens penned A Christmas Carol in 1843. There are many theories on its exact origin, but they all point back to a meaning of deception. According to the Online Entomology Dictionary Etymonline, “humbug” was often used to describe fraud or hoax.
humbug (n.) 1751, student slang, "trick, jest, hoax, imposition, deception," of unknown origin. Also appearing as a verb at the same time, "deceive by false pretext" (trans.). A vogue word of the early 1750s; its origin was a subject of much whimsical speculation even then. "[A]s with other and more recent words of similar introduction, the facts as to its origin appear to have been lost, even before the word became common enough to excite attention" [OED]. Meaning "spirit of deception or imposition; hollowness, sham" is from 1825.
Christmas joy made no sense to Scrooge. As far as he was concerned, the poor had no reason to be happy. So when Scrooge exclaims, “Bah! Humbug!” he is pointing out what he believes to be hypocrisy. Scrooge believed that those who speak of the love and charity of the Christmas season are pretentious and insincere in their beliefs, deceiving themselves and others. For Scrooge, Christmas was a true “humbug”; a time for fake joy and celebration with no real substance or purpose.
A Christmas Carol is not the only literary use of the term “humbug” by Dickens. The word can be found in The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, and other novels. In L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), the word is used often. In the book, the Wizard describes himself as just "a humbug."
“No, you are all wrong,” said the little man meekly. “I have been making believe.”
“Making believe!” cried Dorothy. “Are you not a Great Wizard?”
“Hush, my dear,” he said. “Don’t speak so loud, or you will be overheard–and I should be ruined. I’m supposed to be a Great Wizard.”
“And aren’t you?” she asked.
“Not a bit of it, my dear; I’m just a common man.”
“You’re more than that,” said the Scarecrow, in a grieved tone; “you’re a humbug.”
“Exactly so!” declared the little man, rubbing his hands together as if it pleased him. “I am a humbug.”
Perhaps the best example of “humbuggery” is the celebrated showman and entertainer, Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum. Barnum proudly described himself as the "Prince of Humbugs”. Barnum was a master of humbug, a point he makes in his book Humbugs of the World (1866):
"[A]s generally understood, 'humbug' consists in putting on glittering appearances -- outside show -- novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear".
Barnum always maintained that his customers were not “suckers” but rather willing participants in his lighthearted pranks and hoaxes. “The people like to be humbugged”, he once said.
So the next time you wish someone a "Merry Christmas" and some Scrooge replies with: “Bah! Humbug!” just smile and say: Christmas is no hoax!