Childhood learning · Folklore · Holidays

“Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet, Give Me Something Good to Eat”


Halloween will be different this year. Normally this children’s holiday is an occasion not only for a lot of fun, but an opportunity for kids to learn how to interact with friendly adults whom they do not know. They get practice in having a grown-up conversation because they have something to talk about (their costume) and conversational partners who are truly interested in what they have to say. They learn with the help of a parent or concerned adult how to accept a gift with gratitude (“don’t forget to say thank you”). But this year, many people will just leave a bucket of candy on the doorstep so the children can help themselves. This is so sad. Let’s hope that next year we are no longer afraid to open our doors to the children.

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From One Potato, Two Potato: The Folklore of American Children by Herb and me—here’s our take on Halloween:

“Early in the last century, Halloweeners were mainly boys who disguised themselves to conceal their identities while they played tricks on adults, removing from a house, for instance, the front-porch steps, a length of guttering, or the screen or storm doors—all in near silence.

“But most contemporary Halloweeners are not interested in tricks of any kind. They want loot. They show up at the houses of strangers dressed in costumes meant not to disguise but to be admired.

“They come to beg—well, actually to collect—since they believe they have a right to what the householder gives them. In pagan times, people offered food to the dead on Halloween. Later, people doled out soul cakes to anyone who came by, but mainly to the poor. Today, we give candy to the well fed, who arrive with shopping bags. These bagmen are often accompanied by their parents, who protect them from marauders who might make off with the loot.

“A begging holiday seems somehow appropriate for big cities. It gives children license to approach strangers and reminds  people that they live in a neighborhood, even if then don’t spend much time there.

“A shadow of the old trickster’s Halloween remains alive today in the ritual demand, ‘Trick or treat.’ But many children don’t even understand what they are threatening. They think the phrase means ‘Trick for treat,’ and that if asked, they must do a jig or something else to pay for their candy. Usually they aren’t asked. They show off their costumes, collect their loot, and march off to the next house, occasionally punctuating the night with a Halloween rhyme:

Trick or treat, Smell my feet, Give me something good to eat.

For scary stuff from One Potato, Two Potato, click here

Childhood learning · Holidays

Time again for our Thanksgiving Prayer

Sixteen years ago when a child sat at our Thanksgiving table, I wrote this children’s prayer. That little boy is now grown up; he’ll graduate from Lehigh University this spring, but we still say the prayer every Thanksgiving because we are still immensely grateful for these blessings.

Dear God,

At this time of Thanksgiving, we thank you for our many blessings:

We thank you especially for our family and our happy homes.

We thank you for giving us all the food we need and want to eat.

We thank you for nice clothes, a comfortable bed, hot water, and a warm house.

We thank you for doctors who help make us well when we are sick.

We thank you for teachers who help us learn,

We thank you for stories and poems, for paintings and plays, music, and dance.

We thank you for our country—for the brave men who had the idea for our nation in the first place, and for the brave men and women who fight for our freedoms and who promise to protect us from our enemies.

God bless us all. Help us always to do the right thing and to be grateful every single day.

Amen

May you and your loved ones enjoy good health and many blessings throughout the coming year.

Childhood learning · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Museums

Here’s Where I First Encountered the Past

The William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, 1939, Kansas City, Missouri

When I was eight years old and still an only child, my parents and I spent many Sunday afternoons at the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art (now called the Nelson Atkins Museum) in Kansas City strolling through the cool marble halls, looking this way and that at the paintings. 

Not that my parents had any particular interest in art, but it was a pleasant place to be and it was (and still is) free—an important consideration in those days.

I don’t remember a single painting, But what I do remember with the utmost clarity are the period rooms. They were arranged in chronological order in a recessed area off a main hall, beginning with a colonial keeping room, followed by a bedroom, which I now know was from an antebellum Southern mansion.

I knew these were supposed to be rooms where real people once lived and I was absolutely enthralled. I tried to imagine the child who slept in the bed with the ruffled roof—a bed so high off the floor that you needed little steps to get into it. But I just couldn’t do it. It was like a magic trick I began well but kept fumbling. I wanted to climb under the ropes and get into that bed to see what it was like. But of course I didn’t dare. 


* * * * * * * * *

Fast forward over half a century. Recently retired, Herb and I had moved to New York City where like all newcomers we set out to visit all the tourist attractions. One day we happened on the Merchant’s House Museum, an urban row house constructed in 1832 which miraculously still existed complete with the family’s original furniture and many personal possessions.

And this time the magic worked!

Eliza Tredwell’s bedroom, Merchants House Museum, New York City

I stepped through the front door—not into a room but into an entire house where real people lived over 100 years ago! And this time the magic worked. I could easily imagine the Tredwell family in those rooms because by that time I had become acquainted with the Victorian era through my study of history and literature. I asked if there was a book I could buy that would tell me more. I was disappointed to learn there was not.

But my childhood passion had suddenly been rekindled, and I knew this was where I was meant to spend my newly acquired free time. So I volunteered and for the next 20 years I moved among those rooms,  conducting tours, training the guides, and eventually writing the book I had wanted to buy on that first visit. (See sidebar.)

And  yes, from time to time I was tempted to lie down in that big bed, but I never did for fear it might collapse. I confess, however, to once sitting on the sofa, just to see what it was like.

Childhood learning · paintings · Theatre

The Actress Daughter Weighs In On “Play”

Hopscotch, oil on canvas by Herbert Knapp

Last week Herb posted this painting of a little girl playing hopscotch all by herself on his blog. He talked about the nature of play and why it’s so important.

When Sarah read what he had to say, she was moved to respond. It seems to me her remarks are too interesting to languish in the comment section of Herb’s blog. So here they are:

This post got me to thinking. In the theatre, actors, directors, designers, all refer to what they do as “”work.” It legitimizes the play and the fun they are actually all having. I’ve always found it kind of odd to have someone say, “Your work in that play was brilliant.” I have been known to say it too, when I wanted to sound serious and smart. But lets face it; if we are any good at all, we are playing and having a grand time. And sometimes we even get paid for it. How lucky can you get?

So—that’s why they call it a “play”! It’s a game of Let’s Pretend. 

Sarah Knapp pretending to be Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel, North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, MA. “All I can do is look forward to that wonderful day of days. . .when I marry Mr. Snow.”


Now Herb likes to quote the poet W.H. Auden, so I’ll quote him too:

My own conclusion is that the impulse behind play-acting is a longing to escape into a world of prelapsarian innocence . . . our actions are outside the realm of ethical judgment . . . when we imitate another human being, we imitate a sinner and at the same time we are not guilty of his sins.

Or to put it another way, “his shortcomings.” I hate to think of Carrie as a sinner.

Books · Childhood learning · Laura Ingalls Wider

So You Think the Polar Vortex Was Bad?

The Long Winter was a Newberry honor book for 1941.

Have you  heard about the hard winter of 1880-81? Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder will remember it as the winter that 14-year-old Laura and her pioneer family endured in the remote Dakota territory.

Recurring white out blizzards began in October and continued until spring with little respite between storms. Temperatures dropped to 40 below, snow accumulated as high as the house, and the trains became stuck in the snow packed cuts, unable to get through with supplies. The Ingalls’ family’s coal and kerosene dwindled until there was none left. For months they spent every day all day huddled together in the small kitchen performing the laborious tasks of twisting hay into sticks to burn in the cookstove for warmth and grinding seed wheat in the coffee grinder to make flour.  They were finally rescued from starvation by the heroic efforts of two young men, one of whom would later become Laura’s husband.  And then the Chinook wind started blowing and spring came—as it always does.

Pa teaches Laura how to twist the hay into sticks which they burned in the cookstove for warmth.

Reading this book as an adult was an interesting and rewarding experience. So rewarding in fact that I have resolved to reread all nine books in the series—in order. I just finished the third book and will have something to say about the controversy surrounding them in the future. 

In the Little House books we see the westward journey through a child’s eyes. It is beautiful, exhilarating, sometimes dangerous and frightening,

But these books are much more than adventure stories. They convey a reverence for the natural world and are thought provoking in a way that makes sense to children (and adults as well). It’s no wonder that so many of us remember these books as such an important part of our growing-up years.

Countless sermons have been delivered and gallons of ink spilled by theologians pondering the thorny subject of free will.  In the first chapter of The Long Winter,  Wilder addresses the subject.

The story opens on a sunny, summer day. Laura has talked Pa into letting her help with the haying. By noon they have gathered the hay from the little haystacks (“haycocks”) and loaded it into the wagon.

Laura spies what she thinks is a haycock they missed. Upon inspection, however, it proves to be a muskrat house.

Pa notes he has never seen one so thick, and that means the muskrats have built their house to prepare for a hard winter.

Pa, how can the muskrats know?”  she asked.

“I don’t know how they know,” Pa said. “But they do. God tells them, somehow I suppose.”

“Then why doesn’t God tell us?” 

“Because,” said Pa. “we’re not animals. We’re humans, and, like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free. That means we got to take care of ourselves.”

“I thought God takes care of us.”

“He does,” Pa said, “so far as we do what’s right. And He gives us conscience and brains to know what’s right. But he leaves us to do as we please. That’s the difference between us and everything else in creation.”

“Can’t Muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.

“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at that muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of.

And maybe for the first time in her life the child thinks about the serious subject of what it means to be human and she just may file the information away, for later consideration.