Holiday: One Word, Three Syllables

Christmas as an excuse to play Charades

I'm standing in our living room, pretending to rip my shirt in two. I've already tugged my earlobe to indicate, "sounds like." I've used the other agreed-on Charades finger signals to convey "one word" and played out "one syllable" on my arm.

And my two teammates on the couch just keep guessing the same thing: "Rend." Combined, they command nearly 4,300 SAT points and hundreds of thousands in scholarship money, but after 119 seconds can only keep repeating "Rend." A one-word Broadway and movie musical. "Rend." Time's up, argh! The other team takes over, trying to decipher Lost in Space. Easy!

This is the high point of my holidays. Oh, we do most all the traditional stuff—I can remember when Teammate A wanted nothing so much as a My Size Barbie from Santa—and I still retain some of my Irish-German Catholic Christmases, including a luxurious repertoire of carol lyrics (Do you know "Good Saint Nick"?) and a penchant for nativity sets.

But Charades is still sort of Christmas for me—it all gets back to my '60s and '70s childhood. I remember other stuff, vaguely, like my sister Amy, age 2, waking up first on Christmas morning, and being discovered just in time beneath the tree with a live turtle in her mouth (it lived), or my sister Keyne shaking me—or just yelling?—because I was in charge of my older brother's heavily-funded Christmas shopping and instead of a telltale album-shaped package under the tree for her, it was shaped like a paperback. (It was a paperback, a used copy of Catcher in the Rye, meant to dupe her until Christmas morning when Stevie Wonder's Songs In the Key of Life would appear.)

But much more vivid are the memories of Charades, first played with siblings who were at least four, and as many as 11, years older than me. Kind of like letting Rudolph join in any reindeer games, a lot of references went over my head—Last Tango in Paris, Midnight Cowboy. But it was so much fun! "The kids" would be home from college on Christmas break, or wrested away from their high-school date worlds for an always-too-brief spell. And my mother would join in, too, throwing off the traces of suburban chores to snicker and take a turn. My dad, a Depression-raised engineer, refused all offers to join in ("Whenever there's a winner, there's a loser," he explained to my mom, and she to us). Occasionally, though, he'd infuriate and impress by bellowing out the correct answer as he traversed kitchen-to-workshop two rooms away.

Each team made up clues for the other—books, movies, television shows—to act out, and be timed. Shortest team-time total wins. Could it really be decades since the turtle-sampling sister, younger by four years even than me, "swung" from couch to couch beating her chest, everyone wheezing so hard with laughter no one could gasp out The Jungle? Or since Gone With The Wind was the freebie, solved in seconds?

So much more recently, we've formed a sprawling group of People Who Will Condescend to Play Games With Us, and during the Christmas holidays the college-agers are wrested away from their "real families" (some bring those with them) and cool-kid parties for an always-too-brief spell to join us. Sometimes we get so close: Eatin' Foam (Ethan Frome). Or not so close: Potatoes in Heat (Princess in Pink from the Princess Diaries series).

Last August, at my younger daughter's college bookstore, I caught myself evaluating books, not for literary value, but as Charades contenders. Poisonwood Bible? Been done. Death in Venice? Probably too easy. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare? I think we have a winner... Never once did I think of potential Christmas gifts—Earlham hoodies, coffee cups, snazzy scarves—in that same store.

Other gainfully employed adults—professionals, professors even—have gotten so caught up they've acted out "feces" (for Origin of Species); Everybody Poops, and, erm, Peter and the Wolf (which will forever be Dick and the Wolf for a select group of friends, who now share an intimate knowledge of which among us has borderline bladder-control issues).

Talked to my older daughter yesterday, about her Christmas wish list—socks, earphones, stuff like that.

Then the conversation took an upswing: What were the plans with friends for when she arrives this weekend?

Games for sure—I'd invite people, and she'd do lots of the cooking and clean-up. And the conversation turned easily to Charades, such war stories as my step-daughter's fiancé acting out the Vagina Monologues (solved in 12 seconds by Rend-man!) and another friend who mimed answering the doorbell to try to convey The Stranger. Two minutes of that is a long time.

"Lucy," I tell her right before our goodbyes. "Rend." We both laugh, and she tells me, "I'm glad you're not still bitter about that!"

P.S. My sister Keyne reminded me it was The Jungle Book that inspired the swinging, not the social commentary novel about the meat-packing industry. And I removed several book and song titles from the essay when I realized I might need them for future games.