WHILE JANUARY might seem bleak after the bright lights of Christmas and Hanukah, Mrs. Sharp believes that no time of the year offers families as many enriching opportunities for "getting to know you" as the healthy outdoor games and relaxed indoor pleasures of this season of King Jack Frost.
Just the other day Mrs. Sharp was enjoying a cup of tea by the fire with her old friend January. "Well, thankfully, the hectic pace of December is behind us," she murmured.
"I do believe, if you don't mind my saying so, Mrs. Sharp, that sometimes the holidays can give family traditions a bad name," January observed with a cool air but bright sunny smile.
Yes, dear readers, even Mrs. Sharp will admit to feeling a bit weary after all the celebrating. Isn't it a relief that all that lies ahead for our families is the comforting rhythm of slow winter days? This is the perfect time to take stock of our family life.
Probably the most frustrating aspect of hectic modern living is the fact that busy families rarely see their nearest and dearest, never mind spend enjoyable, memory-making time together.
The remedy is to set aside some special time for the family. Of course, this was not a problem for Victorian families. Every evening after supper, they retired to the front parlor to enjoy the pleasures of cozy home-circle evenings.
You might ask: What's so old-fashioned about this tradition? We spend every evening in the living room together. Yes, but with the television off?
Please do not panic. Mrs. Sharp shall hold your hand through the withdrawal stage. She'll even suggest what your family could be doing together instead of watching television.
It's called having fun.
If there is one thing Mrs. Sharp has learned over this last century, it is that special family times don't just happen, they must be planned. That is why contemporary families need to plan and then set aside one night a week for Family Night. It does not matter what night of the week you choose, but it must be inviolate. Schedule it into your calendar just as you would any other important event.
Setting the climate is very important to the successful integration of family night into your lives. Fun is the most important ingredient to insure the entire family's enthusiastic cooperation and participation. Make the evening festive, like a party. Plan on serving favorite family refreshments. Do they adore ice-cream sundaes? Pizza? Popcorn? Then, this is the evening to have it -- and in future, only on family night. Yes, it is a bribe.
Keep the mood of the evening light-hearted: no discussion of business or discipline problems is permitted. Above all, at least in the very beginning, keep family night short. For your first family night assembly, just an hour or less.
Since coming together for pure enjoyment might come as a shock, ease the family into togetherness gently. Give everybody two weeks notice so that they can arrange their schedules. Then a week's notice. Count the days down: "Three more days until our first Family Night. I'm so excited, aren't you? We're going to have so much fun!" Spread the enthusiasm. It's catching.
"Family night sounds wonderful, Mrs. Sharp, but now that we're all gathered around the popcorn bowl, what is it exactly that we're supposed to do?"
Endless are the diversions your family can enjoy together, dear readers. Here are a few ideas which our family has found of unfailing interest, to spur on your imagination: work on the family photograph album; browse through the gardening catalogues and plan a family garden; work on seasonal handicrafts, such as valentines, an Easter-egg tree, May Day baskets.
For your first family night, why not hold a "Getting To Know You" party? Encourage each member to share his favorite family memories and see if there is a common thread. Next ask everyone to contribute suggestions for the good times to come. Write these suggestions down on index cards for future family night fun.
It is important, if family night is to succeed, that you come prepared each week with an activity. Now Mrs. Sharp knows you would not dream of attending a staff meeting unprepared, but you might think you can "wing it" with the family.
Please: Do not even try. The results will be disastrous, take my word for it. Take all those index-card suggestions for future activities and, as an activity to bridge the future times, why not make a Family Night Fun Box to hold the raw materials for memory-making?
Mrs. Sharp uses a sturdy cardboard letter-size storage box that the entire family helped decorate (another family night project) using photographs, pretty scraps of wrapping and wallpaper, pictures cut from magazines and greeting cards, the children's drawings and stickers.
Inside we keep a recipe-size card file box that contains seasonal suggestions for future family nights, divided by months. For example, "Try candlemaking first week of February for Candlemas Day, February 2," along with the name of the resource where we can obtain the candlemaking supplies.
Inside our storage box there is also a letter-size accordion file folder that keeps larger newspaper and magazine clippings of ideas. This is where you will put that article you want to save instead of stuffing it into the back of the kitchen junk drawer. Finally, there is a calendar so that we can schedule our fun.
The first week of each month we check both the folder and the file box to integrate seasonal delights into our family repertoire of activities. Decide at the end of each family night what you will do the following week, and then each Monday check the supplies you'll need so that you'll be prepared.
To get you started on your cozy home circle evenings, here are some perfect winter evening family night activities:
GETTING A BOARD
Board games have been a Victorian family staple ever since the first American board game appeared in 1843. Called "The Mansion of Happiness," this game taught our young ones what was good and naughty behavior. Good children were grateful and honest, thereby reaping rewards. So in the game, young players landing on the squares marked "Gratitude" and "Honesty" move more quickly to their goal: The Mansion of Happiness. Bad children, on the other hand, who were cruel and boastful, quickly learned that naughtiness never pays; any player landing on the squares "Cruelty" and "Audacity" would lose a turn.
Toys for Victorian children were viewed as tools intended to both "amuse and instruct the rising generation." Board games, in particular, were recommended as "healthful home-circle pursuits" because they imparted gentle moral instruction and often religious training under the guise of diversion. Some popular Victorian board games, for example, included "The Siege of the Stronghold of Satan by the Christian Army" and "Pilgrim's Progress."
But toys have always been accurate social barometers reflecting a society's preoccupations. For example, during the Civil War, board games took on a military flavor, such as "Union Games"; during the 1880s with the rise of the affluent middle class, a game known as "The Monopolist," which was concerned with banking and commerce was extremely popular (and preceded "Monopoly" by more than half a century). Old-fashioned petticoat that she is, Mrs. Sharp cannot even bring herself to contemplate what message a late 20th-century board game known as "The Couch Potato Game" imparts to today's younger set.
Which is why Mrs. Sharp says, bring back "The Mansion of Happiness" as a favorite family entertainment! Its lessons are still worthwhile. If your young ones would like to play it, a reproduction of the game board and complete instructions are included in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Activity Book ($6.95, Random House/The Metropolitan Museum of Art, available through the mail order service of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. For more information or a catalogue, call 718/326-7050). This activity book also contains a fascinating assortment of crafts, models, toys, puzzles and mazes inspired by treasures in the museum's collection which will provide many happy fun-filled hours.
Some of the best board games for families are available from The Animal Town Game Company, P.O. Box 2002, Santa Barbara, CA 93120 (805/962-8368). Write for their free, informative catalogue of family pastimes.
Mrs. Sharp is particularly keen on board games as a way to draw families closer, for playing together provides some of our fondest memories. The dynamics of board games also make them fascinating windows for viewing the people who make up our family. Amidst the laughter and good cheer, the oldsters can gain valuable insights into their youngster's personalities; children gain a glimmer of their parents' limitations; and everyone helps create memories of home as a place where some of our best hours were spent: a mansion of happiness.
One family night in January at Mrs. Sharp's is always reserved for an old-fashioned taffy pull.
Care to join us? It is not quite as bad as you imagine. Messy, yes. But the pleasure and delight we all experience makes a taffy pull a wonderful winter tradition.
Here's how to do it: First, all adults should don aprons and get out smocks for the little ones. In a large saucepan, combine 1 cup white sugar, 3/4 cup brown sugar, 2 cups light molasses, 2 tablespoons mild white vinegar and 4 tablespoons butter. Stir together slowly over a low flame until the sugar dissolves. Keep on stirring until a small spoonful dropped into cold water forms a hard ball. At this point, add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, a small pinch of salt and pinch of baking soda. Mix quickly and pour this fabulous sticky glob onto a large greased platter. Let it become cool enough to handle, about five minutes.
Next grease everyone's hands with butter. Poke the taffy with your finger. If the hole stays put, then you're ready to begin. Roll the taffy into a ball. Form two teams of helpers and start pulling. Roll it into a ball again. Pull some more. Repeat this process. Keep on pulling until you think you'll collapse with laughter because by now what isn't on your hands is in the children's hair, on the floor, kitchen counters and the dog.
After all this pulling, the taffy should be light and firm. Stretch it into a twisted rope, cut into small pieces with buttered scissors and enjoy. What's left over should be stored in a buttered tin with a tight lid. In Mrs. Sharp's house, however, the taffy never makes it that far.
Now who says your family doesn't stick together?
Sarah Ban Breathnach's "Mrs. Sharp's Traditions" column is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group.