Thursday 23 December 2021

Father Christmas, homesteader

Hello everyone. As I mentioned, the last couple of years have thrown my life into some chaos, and not just because of the pandemic. Now, however, things have settled down, I’m writing again, and will have original material ready in the new year. In the meantime, have a great Christmas.

 This time of year, my daughter used to have one favourite story: Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas, the story of Santa’s rounds on Christmas night. It’s one of my favourites as well, if for different reasons.

In this graphic novel, silent but for a few grumbles and greetings, there is no Ms. Claus, elves or secret toy-industrial complex. Father Christmas, here, is an old man living in apparently contented solitude, dutifully venturing out yearly to make his deliveries. He endures storms, fog, sleet and high winds across the world, complaining the entire way and occasionally strengthening his resolve with a drop of liquor.

Such an unsentimental portrait might sound depressing, but it makes Santa more human, and more comprehensible, than the usual laughing caricature. Briggs makes him a hard-working man performing a service we value; Briggs could easily be showing the daily routine of a miner, a fisherman or a farmer. At one point Santa passes a milkman also making deliveries, and they exchange pleasantries without stopping – and even on Christmas morning, the milkman must make his rounds as well.

What I particularly like, though, is that Santa seems to live on a homestead. He starts his morning gathering hay for the animals, is pleased to find two winter eggs from the chickens, and has breakfast with tea. He stokes the small stove, similar to the one we use to burn our bog turf. You wouldn’t be surprised to see a vegetable garden or greenhouses out back.

The book doesn’t say where he lives, although children here say Santa lives in Lapland – northern Finland --- rather than the North Pole. From the tea to the Christmas pudding, though, it looks like working-class Britain in the mid-20th century, the “deeply conservative land” that David Kynaston shows through contemporary diaries in his impressive Austerity Britain. It’s the Britain G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis might have recognised, the life an old man might have lived in Britain when the book was written in 1973.

Father Christmas and Austerity Britain would seem two very different books, but they both focus on the similar cultures, eras and intimate details of living – supper, chores, schedule. Minutiae like this bring earlier eras to life in a way most histories miss, and offer a casual vision of an austere but civilised world that we might be able to revive, as an alternative to worse futures.

In a small room Father Christmas sleeps under quilts, in long johns, with a hot-water bottle, for heat was precious. The bed-stand looks of rough wood, as though he carved it himself, and on it he keeps his teeth and a wind-up alarm clock. The concept of a carbon footprint was decades away when the book was written, but without adding anything for flying reindeer, Santa’s would be close to zero.

As he makes his rounds, we see English farmhouses by moonlight, and my daughter pointed out the details she recognises --- bicycles, water barrels to catch rain from gutters, sticks crossed in the garden for peas to climb. Sometimes Santa has to crawl out of the stove, for people cooked with wood or coal and the oven went to the chimney.

That world was already fading when Father Christmas was published in 1973, and the encroaching modern world seems to confuse Santa. He struggles to find entry into a caravan – a trailer or mobile home to Americans – and he gets tangled in someone’s television antenna. We wondered about things like this as children -- how many of us had ever seen a home with a chimney, much less a sleigh?

The whole story, of course, made more sense when it was gaining popularity in the 19th and early 20th centuries; most children were familiar with sleighs or lumps of coal, and hung their stockings by the chimney anyway, to dry. The oranges we received in our stockings were meaningless to us in the 1970s but precious to our forebears; they were from exotic lands. In “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” Mama was in her kerchief and I in my cap because the houses were cold. Children a century ago would not have found such verses cryptic, any more than they would stables and mangers.

Today it might seem like that world has been completely forgotten. As we inched up the energy needle, our mainstream culture abandoned most of its traditional holidays -- Midsummer, Candlemas, Twelfth Night, May Day and many more – and swelled Christmas from a night to a shopping “season.” Christmas movies and television increasingly portrays Santa’s “workshop” as an assembly line, while news pundits annually track the spending numbers like telethon hosts.

Yet people can’t completely forget a more traditional world this time of year, not amid so many traditions. It is at this time of year that modern people are most likely to visit family, cook food, meet their neighbours, go to church, bring greenery inside, go from house to house singing, or even watch black-and-white movies from the simpler foothills of the energy needle.

When we take pleasure in these things, we peek through cracks in the wall of stress and excess and see another, older world on the other side, and realise that it too can bring comfort and joy.

Thursday 25 November 2021

The End of Childhood


Recorded history is the history of adults–generals, statesmen, explorers and scientists–but all of those adults began their path as children. And running beneath this official history is the unofficial history of children, who inhabited a separate universe of traditions, contests, solemn rituals and codes of honour, like a Viking horde living in your house unnoticed. 

It was in this world that every future general first learned to lead, every future scientist first turned over logs to delight in the tiny nightmares underneath, and every future explorer first plucked up the courage to enter the haunted woods. Elderly people here in Ireland, who grew up without electricity or many cars, still remember the feral exploration and creative play that was once the birthright of every child.

“Children today don’t have to think much about games given to them – we made up our own,” said one elder. “We played spin the top, marbles, hoop the hoop, hop scotch, conkers, kick the can, scut the whip, jackstones, and box the fox. Hop scotch has survived to some extent, but only among girls … Even when the dark evenings closed in we played ‘Battle In, Battle Out,’ and ‘Jack jack show the light.’”

The games varied widely from person to person; villages only a few miles away could apparently have very different game-traditions. City streets, perhaps because they drew families from so many rural villages, seem to have been a vast melting pot of such games; when British novelist Norman Douglas published his whimsical overview of the children’s games of London in 1916, he spent dozens of pages–most of the book–just listing games. Not dozens of games, mind you–dozens of pages of lists of games, any of which could be as complex as any video game today and most of which were known to most children.

The games, rhymes, and rituals children invented were so ubiquitous, and so often out of sight of adults, that they were little remarked upon or recorded, and only now, when they have almost disappeared, can we look back and see how remarkable they were. In the 1950s the husband-and-wife team of Peter and Iona Opie interviewed children on playgrounds around the UK and found that, instead of being silly and spontaneous, children’s rhymes and stories actually preserved historical traditions their parents had lost.

“Boys continue to crack jokes that Swift collected from his friends in Queen Anne’s time,” Opie wrote. “They ask riddles which were posed when Henry VIII was a boy. . . . They learn to cure warts . . . after the manner which Francis Bacon learned when he was young. . . . They rebuke one of their number who seeks back a gift with a couplet known in Shakespeare’s day. . . . and they are [perpetuating stories] which were gossip in Elizabethan times.” They re-discovered the observation of Queen Anne’s physician John Arbuthnot, who said that “nowhere was tradition preserved pure and uncorrupt but amongst school-boys, whose games and plays are delivered down invariably from one generation to another.”

This is especially remarkable since most of these rituals were not taught by parents or grandparents, who might have learned them decades earlier, but by other children who could only have known them for a few years. Since they were re-transmitted over years rather than decades, their transmission signal should have decayed more quickly. Instead, the children proved stronger at retaining historical knowledge than most adults–not in the sense of reciting facts, but in treasuring their past.

Some of their superstitions, like a blister as proof of lying, date back at least to the 1500s, and they chanted a rhyme that apparently dates back to the era of France’s Henry IV in 1610. Most interestingly, country children still wore oak leaves or an acorn in their button-holes on 29 May to remember the return of Charles II in 1651–and could explain why they did so–at a time when few adults remembered the date.

Keep in mind, also, that few people were writing in the 1500s, most writing was not about children’s games, and much of what was written then has been lost–so if a ritual was first recorded in the 1500s, it could well be much older. Oral traditions can endure for thousands or even tens of thousands of years; Australian Aborigines have traditions about the sea level changing that seem to date from the last Ice Age. No one knows if any children’s rhymes and games date back so far, but Douglas believed that one chant stretched back to the time of Nero, and the Opies seemed to agree.

Their games and rituals were still very local, even in the 1950s when mass media was already washing away the local cultures of villages and neighbourhoods. “While some children roll eggs at Easter,” the Opies wrote, “or nettle the legs of classmates on the 29th of May, or leave little gifts on people’s doorsteps on St. Valentine’s Day, or act under the delusion that they are above the law on a night in November, other children, sometimes living only the other side of a hill, will have no knowledge of these activities.”

Here, too, Ireland held onto this heritage later than most countries, and a radio documentary of children playing in a Dublin school-yard in 1977 showed them using their own complicated musical chants. They weren’t all local traditions–one chant cited Shirley Temple, “the girl with the curly hair”–but even that showed the staying power of these songs, as this was two generations after she had been famous.

The Opies also noted that children spontaneously adopted a “code of oral legislation”–cultural institutions for testing truthfulness, swearing affirmation, making bets and bargains, and determining the ownership of property–the adult legal code in miniature. These codes universally included a practice absent from adult law, however–that of asking for respite, what we recognize as “calling time out,” and what today’s children reportedly call “pause,” a usage imported from video games.

“Throughout history, bands of children gathered and roamed city streets and countrysides, forming their own societies each with its own customs, legal rules and procedures, parodies, politics, beliefs, and art,” the blog Carcinisation pointed out. “With their rhymes, songs, and symbols, they created and elaborated the meaning of their local landscape and culture, practicing for the adult work of the same nature. We are left with only remnants and echoes of a once-magnificent network of children’s cultures, capable of impressive feats of coordination.”

This seems to have been true of all human cultures–anthropologists report it in hunter-gather tribes, and Zechariah 8:5 said that “the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing.” Certainly it was true among people I knew in Ireland or the USA in living memory. To see how recently outdoor play was assumed, look at a map of most American cities; anything built before World War II is typically a grid for easy transport, but post-war suburban streets curl like tossed spaghetti and end in cul-de-sacs in order to do the opposite, to slow and discourage traffic to be “safe for families.” The sprawl that covers much of America looks the way it does because it was made to be safe for children to play in the street–which in 1945 was exactly what they would be doing.

If the returning GIs who first moved into these homes could be transported to the present day, however, they would be puzzled. Aside from the fact that the future never happened–no flying cars or robot butlers–the most glaring difference would be the absence of any children. To a time traveler it would seem like the beginning of a Twilight Zone episode, and they’d would demand to know what happened–was there a plague? An alien invasion? Are the children grown from pods now? Are they marched to an altar and sacrificed to a dark god? Or is this some horrific science-fiction future where children grow up staring at glowing rectangles, and are drugged when they get restless?

“Even the idea of a children’s game seems to be slipping from our grasp,” Neil Postman wrote in 1982. “A children’s game, as we used to think of it, requires no instructors or umpires or spectators; it uses whatever space and equipment are at hand; it is played for no other reason than pleasure. . . . Who has seen anyone over the age of nine playing Jacks, Johnny on the Pony, Blindman’s Buff, or ball-bouncing rhymes? . . . Even Hide-and-Seek, which was played in Periclean Athens more than two thousand years ago, has now almost completely disappeared from the repertoire of self-organized children’s amusements. Children’s games, in a phrase, are an endangered species.”

The decline began a few generations ago, when television steamrolled over children’s cultural traditions, and that screen has now multiplied into a billion hand-held ones. When children everywhere carry all the world’s pornography in their pocket, as well as electronic games psychologically designed to addict people as powerfully as heroin, few future leaders will organise their mates, and few budding scientists will turn over any logs. Moreover, children today grow up under effective house arrest, as local ordinances, paranoid neighbours and police conspire to prohibit children from venturing far outside. They grow up learning no lessons, organising no peers, and exploring no territory, unless it be shifting electrons around a screen, and the screen becomes their world.

This unnatural state takes all the power of modern society to maintain, and it does not have to be inevitable or permanent; even now some parents keep their children unplugged and gather with other parents who do the same. If they don’t live near the country themselves, they might visit family who do. They teach small children some games from old books, and let the children take it from there. How this guerrilla action proceeds will depend on the situation, but it needs to be done. Otherwise, today’s children will live in a country filled with the most dependent and least self-sufficient humans who ever lived, polarised and paralysed by their screens, and facing a difficult future. We will need a generation of people who can explore, negotiate, and work together again, and to do that we need children to experience childhood once more.



Tuesday 23 November 2021

I'm back


First of all, I want to apologise to everyone for my absence. I updated this blog more or less regularly for more than a decade as I raised my daughter in the Irish countryside, and commuted back and forth to work in Dublin. On the bus I did most of my writing, and even began doing videos – both of the life I was leading, and of interviews I did with the Irish elders around me.

In the last year, however, I encountered personal troubles that disrupted my life and absorbed my attention from regular writing, and the simultaneous pandemic didn’t help. I continued the newspaper column and the occasional maagazine article in between my day job, but had to pull back my usual work. Now, however, it’s time I got back into it.

I’ve been spending much of the pandemic pulling together my elder interviews and my wirtings into a single work, and I’m still working on it. I hope to post pieces of that as it comes together, along with more videos of the elders I’ve interviewed, and retrospectives on raising The Girl.

As for The Girl, she is a younng woman now, almost done with high school, spending her weekends riding horses, and about every two weeks we spend the day together in Dublin. A few weeks ago we went to see The Maltese Falcon, one of the best detective films ever, and while she was the youngest person in the cinema by a few decades, she loved it almost as much as I did.

I’ll be posting again starting soon, and it will be good to be back.


Thursday 7 January 2021

Published at Grit Magazine, Front Porch Republic


Happy New Year, everyone! To all my American friends and family, I'm sorry about the current upheaval, and after everything we've been through, I hope we all get a lull in the Long Emergency to let us regroup and prepare for the next round.  

Ireland rang in the New Year by going back into its third total lockdown. On the good side, this monastic interlude has taught me to be grateful for my friends and family, and to find joy in simple moments, and to not forget them so easily; I walked around an empty Dublin this morning, watching the dawn light ripple across the river, listening to Haydn's magnificent 45th Symphony and the lovely prose of the book "My Father's Wake," both of which I recommend.

 I'm delighted to report that Grit Magazine has published my piece on St. Necklace Day, which you can see here

Also, the amazing publication Front Porch Republic, which you should really check out, has published my article on the end of children's games. Check it out here.