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When Bah, Humbug Was the Law

Scrooge
George C. Scott as Scrooge.1

“Bah! Humbug!” Thus Scrooge greeted his nephew one Christmas Eve and with two words became one of literature’s most enduring characters and gained immortality as the original Grinch.

Poor Scrooge. He simply lived in the wrong time and place. For in 17th century Boston not only was bah, humbug the norm, it was actually the law.

A 1659 Massachusetts statute provided “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like … shall pay for every such offence five shillings ….”2 Why? Who doesn’t like Christmas?

The answer lies in the political and religious upheavals that shook seventeenth century England. Christmas partying and gift giving mimicked traditions of an ancient Roman December feast called Saturnalia. Stalwart Puritans thus considered them heathen.

Door with Wreath.
Holiday Traditions Today.

On Christmas Day 1621 Plymouth colony’s Governor Bradford found settlers “gaming [and] reveling in the streets.” He promptly sent them back to work.3

In 1662 a Beverly, Massachusetts fisherman, William Hoar, was brought to court for “suffering tippling [drinking] in his house by those who came to keep Christmas there.” Mariners apparently were a bad lot; Marblehead was a site of on-going Christmas-keeping.4

In fairness these early Christmas celebrations were often not the wholesome events we think of today. In the 1760s Christmas in Boston meant the Boston Anticks. Groups of young men roamed the town wassailing. They would enter the homes of wealthy residents, perform bawdy skits and then demand money. It was felt that custom “had licensed these vagabonds to enter even by force any place they chose,” so residents did not feel entitled to expel unwelcome visitors.

But there would have been no need to outlaw Christmas if people hadn’t wanted to celebrate. In 1664 three prominent members of Reverend Increase Mather’s church went to see him after he delivered an anti-Christmas sermon. Mather noted in his diary that they “discoursed much about Christmas, I Con, they Pro.”

Louis Prang Christmas Card
1876 Christmas Card by Louis Prang.5

Attitudes and practices began to change in the 19th century. In 1856 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow detected “a transition state about Christmas here in New England.” Christmas was made a federal holiday in 1870. In 1875 the first Christmas cards in the United States were created in Boston by Louis Prang.

And what of poor Scrooge? The story is well known, but bears retelling. He went home alone that Christmas Eve. At night three ghosts showed him his life on Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas yet to come. Scrooge got up Christmas morning and realized it was not too late to change. He had the biggest turkey in the shop delivered to the home of his clerk, Bob Cratchit. It was Cratchit’s son, Tiny Tim, who asked that “God bless Us, Every One!”

Thus another year rolls around and the holidays are upon us again. May they bring joy and happiness to you and yours.

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  1. George C. Scott as Scrooge in 1984 made for TV version of A Christmas Carol. Image from U.S.A. Today, December 17, 2008.
  2. Penalty for Keeping Christmas, Massachusetts Historical Legal Documents and Laws, Massachusetts Court System.
  3. Stephen W. Nissenbaum, Christmas in Early New England, 1620–1820, American Antiquarian Society (1996), quoting William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation.
  4. Nissenbaum, ibid, p. 99.
  5. Image from Marybeth Kavanagh, Louis Prang, Father of the American Christmas Card, New-York Historical Society, December 19, 2012.

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Updated December 20, 2014.