Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Truth Behind the Humbug

The Truth Behind the Humbug

I recently posted a little sign in front of my cubicle at my bill-paying job that simply said:

bah humbug...

That’s it. Amidst all of the decorations in my workspace, most of which were put up by other people, I had that simple sign on white paper and black ink.

bah humbug...

And depending on what kind of day people were having, they either agreed with me, or else they were upset that I DARED to post that sign amidst their half-assed and crudely-made snow people down the cubicle corridors and their crude cubicle decorations. Very few people really asked me if I was serious about the sentiment. (I wasn’t, as I had my own decorations and miniature tree in the cubicle.) They were either agreeing with the statement or else they were pissed off about it.

So I have to wonder… do folks REALLY know what is behind that infamous statement?

I don’t think they do.

Okay, first off, NOBODY ever says “Bah humbug” in the Charles Dickens classic story “A Christmas Carol”! It’s either dismissive “Bah!” or else it’s “Humbug!” or it’s the two standalone exclamations one after the next, but they’re never seen together in the same sentence.

Second, does anyone know what “humbug” means? Humbug is an old archaic word for “hoax” or “joke”. In East-India, it means “to deceive” or “to cheat”. In Australia, it means “to pester or to annoy”.

P.T. Barnum considered himself to be the master of “humbug”, providing elaborate displays of fakery which would leave the audience wanting more. No doubt the same can be said about the alphabet soup media today.

So which definition of “humbug” would apply to Ebenezer Scrooge’s view of Christmas? A hoax or joke? If so, it would be the biggest in the world.

More likely, though, it would be either as a deception or else an annoyance.

That brings us to Scrooge himself. Why would someone be so bitter about the season? Nobody really asks that question. It’s just considered a crime against society for someone like him to be bitter and uncharitable.

Some people would go so far as to say that it was GREED that made Scrooge the man that he was. Yes he was miserly in nature, but this was actually a common trait for those who spent some time with next to nothing. To say that a love of money made him bitter and cruel would be to speak from sheer ignorance not only of the man but also of the story.

So let’s look at Scrooge’s life again. And I mean REALLY look at his life!

This is a man who spent his early years bitter and alone! He was banished by his father to a boarding school for the simple crime of being born! He had no mother, as she died giving birth to him, and the only person who ever really cared about him was his older sister Fan. SHE was the one that kept hope alive - and no doubt gave a few nudges here and there - that their father would change his mind and let him come home. He gets to spend ONE Christmas time at home, and then it’s off to Fezziwig’s for the apprenticeship.

Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept of apprenticeship, it’s not like the internships of today. And it certainly is NOT like the kind of apprenticeship that you see in Donald Trump’s reality TV series where that person gets to work on a super-special multi-billion dollar project and then go on tours talking about how GREAT Trump is and what his TV series is like. Apprentices didn’t just learn there, they actually LIVED there as well! And we’re not talking posh living quarters. Usually it was space in a storeroom or basement. If they were lucky, they could rent a room nearby.

In other words, there really WAS NO HOME for Scrooge to go to when he was growing up! He essentially had no kind of parenting. He had books as a child and business as a teenager. While everyone else would be able to go home for Christmas, he had to stay in the boarding school by himself. It was only during his apprenticeship that he ever really acquired some modicum of appreciation of the season.

According to the story, Ebenezer Scrooge only had ONE girlfriend in his life. Just ONE! A woman that he desperately wanted to marry, but only as long as he can make sure they would be financially secure, which was a social necessity in those days. And she forces him to choose between her and business, which was the ONLY THING that he ever knew in his entire life! And when does she force him to make this choice? ON CHRISTMAS!

Oh, it gets better… his lovely older sister dies on Christmas, and later on so does his only friend and business partner Jacob Marley.

Okay, so let’s sum it up here… this is a person that has had plenty of bad experiences connected to Christmas. He lost his one girlfriend, he lost the only family member who ever cared for him, and he lost his best friend in the whole world, and all on CHRISTMAS.

And you actually expect this man to be merry and charitable for the season? You should be lucky that he didn’t turn out to be another Jack the Ripper or Sweeny Todd.

This is a man who was the embodiment of the Industrial Revolution, and of the Industrial Society itself, which was what Dickens was truly condemning in the story. Scrooge was MADE for this society: cold, calculated, and mercenary to the core. Indeed, he was essentially GROOMED for it.

But what Scrooge considered to be “humbug”… or fake… was NOT Christmas. Rather, what he saw as a hoax or a fake were the acts of charity and humanity of the season! He saw Christmas as being nothing more than pretentiousness. THAT was what he was really condemning! The poor and the despondent had services to turn to in the forms of workhouses, debtor’s prisons, and orphanages. That was how society handled things at the time, and that’s what Scrooge praised. He just couldn’t understand how for most of the year this would be the rule and then at Christmas somehow there should be an exception to it.

He saw the gathering of his nephew’s friends as pretentious friends, because that was how he remembered holiday celebrations to be. He had a dispassionate view of his employee’s plight at this time of the year because HE was raised that way. In fact I would dare say that he was probably even jealous of Bob Cratchit, because the man HAD a family and people who loved him regardless of how little money they had.

And yet, he also discovers that there is even a modicum of love for HIM after all that he says and does at this time of the year. That’s why he asked the Ghost of Christmas Present to let them linger a while longer at his nephew’s party. It’s the realization that he still matters to people! He is shown acts of charity and kindness from even those who have nothing else left to give. It’s not all pretentiousness like he dismissed it all as.

And finally, what turns his life around? It’s not death, a fact that even he has to make obvious, but rather it is that for all that he has done for business, that he would die UNLOVED. What little care and concern for him by those he knew was gone by the time of his death. Those in business, whom he considered to be his friends, and the only real things that he grew up with that seemed to matter to him, would ignore his passing and only attend his funeral if it was catered. They would leave his estate open to whomever would pillage it, and he would be missed by nobody. THAT was what he truly feared. He is given an opportunity to change this fate for himself and for others if he simply embraces what little kindness he is given today and repays it in kind.

“Humbug”, my friends, is not for the season, but for the sentiment.

We face a season full of annoyances and fakery. The stress related to holiday travel is a humbug. So are the obsessive demands of the stores for us to shop at all costs and spend money like there is no tomorrow. That too is a humbug. And, most certainly, the people who ask us to be happy and merry and charitable when we cannot truly feel it at this time… people like Bill O’Reilly and the rest of the mercenary jackals at Fox News and all of the other people who INSIST, if not DEMAND, that you say MERRY CHRISTMAS at this time of the year and encourage others to literally SHOVE the holiday spirit down our collective gullets. THEY are humbugs in pretty much every definition of the word!

That’s not to say that there isn’t some genuine holiday spirit out there, but more often than not, it is drowned out by our personal demands to make the season memorable each and every year. Some people can decorate their entire property with enough holiday lights to be mistaken for Las Vegas. Some people can decorate every room and every workplace with the sights, sounds, and smells of the season. They can be IN the spirit. Others, though, cannot; and it is wrong for us to insist that they do, or to even pretend that they do. That, my friends, is the real humbug.

So the next time you see or hear the words “bah humbug”, understand the significance of the saying. It’s not the season that is being rejected with the saying, but rather the pretentiousness associated to it.

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