Imagine Christmas without movies or vacation packages to Las Vegas, without video games or trips to the mall to keep the younger generation occupied. Though perhaps more stay-at-home in the past, celebrations of Christmas were not necessarily idyllic. Mrs. Oliphant in her 1893 novel Hester takes Charles Dickens to task for his sentimentalized rendering of the family Christmas. It may strike modern readers as almost shockingly contemporary to hear Mrs. Oliphant refer to Christmas as that “often troublesome festival” and go on to say:
The amount of reality in the rejoicings may be very doubtful, but yet there must be a family gathering, and the different branches of the race must seem to take kindly to it whatever may be their private sentiments. Dickens did wisely in finding his types of Christmas felicity among people to whom an accidental turkey is a benediction from heaven, and the mystery of the pudding has not lost its freshness.The apparent simplicity of a nineteenth century Christmas might seem attractive, but keeping family groups occupied still presented a challenge.
I presume you are now all come home for the holidays, and that the brothers and sisters and cousins, papas and mammas, uncles and aunts, are all met cheerfully round a Christmas fire, enjoying the company of their friends and relations, and eating plum pudding and mince pie. These are very good things; but one cannot always be eating plum pudding and mince pie: the days are short, and the weather bad, so that you cannot be much abroad; and I think you must want something to amuse you. Besides, if you have been employed as you ought to be at school, and if you are quick and clever, as I hope you are, you will want some employment for that part of you which thinks, as well as that part of you which eats; and you will like better to solve a riddle than to crack a nut or a walnut…Anna Laetitia (Aikin) Barbauld, A Legacy for Young Ladies (1826)
Riddles, published in magazines or books or passed along by word of mouth, made up a popular past-time in the nineteenth century.
"Four stiff-standers, four down-hangers,Alice Cary, Clovernook, or Recollections of our Neighborhood in the West (1853)
two crook-abouts, two look-abouts, and a whisk-about."
"Eh! who couldn't guess that?---it's nothing but a cow…"
"Through a riddle and through a reel,
Through an ancient spinning wheel---
Through the grass and in the skies,
If you guess this you'll be wise."
"Well, then, I am wise, for it's frost," replied Sally; but I doubt whether she could have come to this conclusion so readily from any meaning of the words. "Now I'll tell one you can't guess:
`Long legs, short thighs,
Little head, and no eyes."'
"Tongs, tongs!" shouted Jane Anne.
Every Family’s Book of Amusement (London, 1853) recognized the importance of entertainment in the family domestic circle. In the winter, especially in country towns, visiting became impossible for days at a time and families had to amuse themselves at home. Every Family’s Book of Amusement contains rules for card games as well as backgammon, chess, dominoes, checkers. Sleight-of-hand and card tricks were described as well as a wide variety of word games. An example of an enigma:
“Five simple letters do compose my frame;
And, what is singular, when viewed, my name
Forwards and backwards will be the same
When I’m discovered you will plainly see
What the proud peer and peasant soon will be.” (Solution: Level.)
An example of a conundrum:
Charades are given in the book as well, for domestic entertainment; in the nineteenth century, charades took the form of verse, with one player acting out each syllable of the word:
“My first your sleepy head attends;
My second names your dearest friends;
My whole’s oft at your fingers’ ends.” (Solution: Nap-kin.)
Women writers in the nineteenth century often incorporated these word games in their books. Beatrix Potter, in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, presents this riddle:
“A house full, a hole full, and you cannot gather a bowl full.” (Solution: Smoke.)Jane Austen makes use of riddles and charades in her novels as well. In Emma, the following “well-known” charade appears:
My first doth affliction denote(First syllable, woe; second syllable, man; solution: “woman.”)
Which my second is destin'd to feel.
And my whole is the best antidote
That affliction to soften and heal.
Eberle Umbach, © 2007-2009