Saturday, December 23, 2017

`Good Cheer, Winter Nights'

Jigsaw puzzles are a Christmas custom that has evolved naturally since the boys were toddlers. Every year I order a new one of 1,000 pieces and we assemble it on the kitchen table. At fourteen and seventeen, they haven’t yet grown too cool to beg out. It seems like a natural pastime for the bottom of the year, though the temperature in Houston has been topping eighty degrees. We favor detailed still-lifes over landscapes and abstractions, and the competition over who places the final piece is fierce and usually involves cheating (“How’d it get in my pocket?”). Here is Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Second Partition, Section II, Member IV, “Exercise rectified of Body and Mind”:

“The ordinary recreations which we have in winter, and in most solitary times busy our minds with, are cards, tables and dice, shovelboard, chess-play, the philosopher’s game, small trunks, shuttlecock, billiards, music, masks, singing, dancing, Yule-games, frolics, jests, riddles, catches, purposes, questions and commands . . .”

At this point, Burton inserts a footnote: “Brumales laete ut possint producere noctes,” which means something like this: “That they are able to produce the good cheer, winter nights.” Some of the winter pastimes in our family overlap with Burton’s list: chess, Monopoly, Scrabble, Risk. After four centuries it’s comforting to see what else we share with our forebears. Burton continues:

 “. . . merry tales of errant knights, queens, lovers, lords, ladies, giants, dwarfs, thieves, cheaters, witches, fairies, goblins, friars, &c., such as the old woman told Psyche in Apuleius, Boccace novels, and the rest . . .”

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