The sound of Christmas this year was the ping of electronic games, Man versus Computer, the perfect gift in an age where the Census Bureau reports an increase in the number of people living alone, unable even to rustle up a second for chess or checkers.
Generations are growing up thinking success lies in receiving an electronic huzzah. They've never heard of charades, never tracked down the villain in the Murder Game, never followed the clues to "I See Something," or tried to remember the order in which "I Packed My Trunk to go to Grandmother's."
You don't have to reach back too far to produce an evening of games. An oral historian from the '50s can fill you in on charades, a popular TV and parlor game of that era, though in much simpler form than orginally enacted in Europe. Begun as rhyming riddles, charades escalated into elaborately acted playlets, complete with costumes and scenery. If you are bored or ambitious enough to try a major production, there is a chapter in Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" entitle, "In which a Charade is acted which may or may not puzzle the Reader," which is as good a description as you could find.
The version in vogue in America up to the '50s involved dividing guests into two teams, with one team assigning a book title, a quotation, the name of a song, or what have you, to a member of the other team, who then acted out each syllable in pantomime for his team to guess. Each of these charades was timed, and the team which guessed the words in the shortest time won.
In the Murder Game, people draw lots with one receiving the role of murderer. The murderer finds a victim alone, tells him he must play dead, leaves a clue or two and wanders off to mingle with the rest of the guests. The victim remains in place until found, at which point the other guests question each other and try to use the clues to determine which is the murderer.
A story is told that at a houseparty given by Alexander Woollcott, the cunning murderer lettered YOU ARE DEAD on a roll of toilet paper, forcing the victim who unrolled the command to remain a corpse in the back bathroom until found several hours later.
If all of this is too complicated, there is always poker which requires only that the party-giver provide cards, poker chips, a table and things to munch on. Or you could sponsor a backgammon or checkers tournament, rounding up boards from friends for an elimination playoff.
It will pass a cold evening at little expense and maybe, if you're lucky, no one will remember to talk about The Transition.