Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Importance of Cribbage at Christmas

"15-2, 15-4, 15-6 and a pair is 8", he announced as he moved his red peg eight holes ahead on the oval track of the cribbage board occupying the table between us. My father-in-law and I play Cribbage most every time we are together. It has become a tradition, as it was when my father was alive. Even before that, I spent many hours learning the niceties of the game from my grandfather, who often tried to "cheat", with a smile and twinkle in his eye, just to see if I was watching him score his points on the board. In my family, board and card games were the staple of every family get-together, especially Christmas. With the popularity of video, computer, iPhone and other electronic distractions, table games have seemingly lost their luster. But, for me, Cribbage still remains the constant; a comforting custom of Christmas.
For those of you who may be uninformed, Cribbage, or "Crib" as it has been shortened to, is a simple card game, requiring some thought, strategy and attention in order to play well, but leaving plenty of opportunity for discussion, joking, poking fun and other male expressions of friendship. The inventor of the game, Sir John Suckling, was a cavalier English poet of the early 1600s. He was appropriately known for his carefree spirit and wit, despite a self-inflicted end to his own life at the age of 33.
My father-in-law, Louis, wears his 82 years extraordinarily well. But 50 years as a stonemason, holding large stones in one hand while shaping them by blows from a heavy stone hammer held in the other in order to place them perfectly in a wall, have taken their toll. While his stonework was often a work of art, he has suffered, as most artists do, from the consequence of long hours perfecting and pursuing his craft. The pain from worn out joints and tired, overworked muscles remind him constantly of the price he has paid for his passion for perfection and hard work, often in the cold or inclement weather. Despite life's pounding which has taken place over more than eight decades, he smiles and laughs at any excuse, but always when he is playing Cribbage.
Despite my own evidences of Parkinson's disease, disabling my skill at shuffling and dealing the cards as quickly as I once did, I enjoy these times immensely. Perhaps it is the game, or the distraction it offers from some pain, troubling symptom or other of life's challenges. Maybe it is the warmth that, wrapped in the friendly banter between us, has grown consistently since he welcomed me into his family some 40 years ago. Despite the fact that the game facilitates competitive rivalry, both of us trying to best the other, moaning about the bad cards that have been dealt, complaining about the luck of the other, or threatening retribution after losing a game, there is a sense of comfortable camaraderie when we play. It feels like sliding one's feet into a well-worn pair of slippers or putting on an old, favorite sweater. It keeps the chill away and warms your heart at the same time.
Perhaps there is some correlation between the "crib" of that first Christmas, and the customary Christmas games of "Crib" that have formed my definition of good, family, Christmas time. There is a sense, despite the apparent lack of any logical relationship, that both cribs communicate that "all is well with the world". Both, if I am honest with you, give me a feeling of well-being, a simple sentiment of "goodwill towards men". In a time when living day-to-day can be demanding, they both offer, to a greater or lesser extent, a place of peace.

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