When Bah, Humbug Was the Law

George C. Scott as Scrooge.1

“Bah! Humbug!” That’s how Scrooge greeted his nephew one Christmas Eve. Those two words earned Scrooge immortality as the original Grinch and made him one of literature’s most enduring characters.

Poor Scrooge. He just lived in the wrong time and place. In 17th century Boston, not only was bah, humbug the norm, it was actually the law. A 1659 Massachusetts statute outlawed the celebration of Christmas, declaring:

whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like … shall pay for every such offence five shillings ….”2

Why Would Anyone Not Like Christmas? The answer lies in the political and religious upheavals that shook seventeenth century England. Christmas partying and gift giving mimicked ancient Roman practices during the December feast of 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 many of these early Christmas celebrations were 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. Homeowners felt they had no choice but to play along, since custom “had licensed these vagabonds to enter even by force any place they chose.”

But people obviously wanted to celebrate at Christmas, or there would have been no need for a statute outlawing it. In 1664, Reverend Increase Mather noted in his diary that three prominent members of his church had gone to see him after he delivered an anti-Christmas sermon. In Mather’s words, the parties “discoursed much about Christmas, I Con, they Pro.”

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

Attitudes Change. Bostonians’ attitudes about and celebration of Christmas 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. The first Christmas cards in the United States were created in Boston by Louis Prang in 1875.

What Happened to Scrooge? And what of poor Scrooge? The story is well known, but bears retelling.

Scrooge went home alone on Christmas Eve after declining his nephew’s invitation to Christmas dinner. That night Scrooge was visited by three ghosts. They showed him his life on past Christmases, the present one and Christmases yet to come.

Scrooge awoke Christmas morning and realized it was not too late to change. Immediately, he purchased the largest turkey at the local butcher shop and had it delivered to the home of his underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit. He then joined his nephew’s family for Christmas dinner and lived the rest of his life a caring and generous person.

* * * * *

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


  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.