Like most great family traditions, I don’t remember how it started. Whenever guests arrive and dinner is still in the oven, one of the kids will go get the “puzzle basket.” It’s just an assortment of puzzles and brain teasers, most of which arrived at our house as stocking stuffers over the years. Everyone chooses a favorite to help pass the time, and after an assortment of hinting, fiddling, teasing, switching and bragging, dinner is ready, and the puzzles go back in the basket whether finished or not. It always surprises me how every one of these is a solo puzzle for one person, but you get so much conversation. You’d think that everyone working on their own puzzles would be quiet, but conversations continue while they fiddle, from the expert to the beginner.
I talked before about practical puzzles and their relationship with locks, but what are we to make of popular inventions that are actually less practical than the original form they are based on? I’m thinking specifically of fuddling cups and puzzle jugs, popular in homes and taverns since the middle ages. Often inscribed with an entertaining rhyme, riddle or even a wager against success, these vessels challenge people to get a drink without spilling. Fuddling cups are linked by siphons in such a way that you can't drink from one cup without spilling from another, unless you drink from them in a certain order. Puzzle jugs cannot be poured from normally because the necks are perforated so as to spill the contents everywhere. Their secret is that they have hollow handles connected with the spout so that the contents can be sucked from the spout is if through a straw, passing through the handle instead of the perforated neck.
Like the puzzles in our basket, fuddling cups and puzzle jugs are social puzzles, despite being solo puzzles. They were intended to be worked out by someone who didn't know the answer, in the presence of someone who did. One can only imagine the laughter, the teasing, the bragging and booing, the wagers won and lost in homes and taverns over the years. Considering how much would be spilled in each failure, these were hardly a practical way to slake your thirst, but they are perfect for quenching a more human need for social stimulation. That need remains as great today, and centerpieces, party favors, conversation pieces, and coffee table books fill the role of fuddling cups and puzzle jugs in our society.
Our beer and wine puzzles are our answer to fuddling cups and puzzle jugs. Hopefully, you won’t spill much, but there’s room for all the other antics--the bets and the boos and the laugher. We even went so far as to name some of them Don’t Break It wine puzzle, in case someone is seeking a Gordian solution. Like the fuddling cups and puzzle jugs, these are solo social puzzles that can be solved by one person with determination and ingenuity, but the person who sets them up ought to be able to solve them if the guests are truly befuddled by the fuddling. It’s also good to note that these puzzles don’t come with a bottle of wine, so you can choose red or white or draft depending on the occasion, or even a sparkling cider if you’re so inclined. Children and teetotalers can join in the fun of solving, even if the contents are only for a few of the adults. After all, someone has to be the designated driver!
Fall and Winter are party season because without this, they are quite hard on the emotions. Many traditions name monsters in the cold, dark of starvation--Morozko or Wendigo or Jotun or Yeti--which in our enlightened era have been banished, only to return in the form of seasonal affective disorder, depression and general doldrums. It's no wonder that cultures all over the world have festivals in the darkest part of the year when it seems even the sun has abandoned us. Like Auntie Mame bootstrapping herself out of dark times, we still need a little of this at least once a year, because we’ve grown a little sadder, colder, meaner, or just more disconnected. We need a little of the centuries-old remedy where people fought that darkness by filling it with light, gathering together around a table of abundant food during a time when common sense would say to ration it. It may seem crazy, but it works.
It's telling that when George Bailey is transported to a darker version of his world, the first sign the world is wrong is a bar where they "serve hard drinks here, for men who wanna get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around to give the joint 'atmosphere'." I’d imagine there are no puzzle jugs our fuddling cups at Nick's place, either, they just slow people down on the way to anaesthetic inebriation. If drinking doesn’t increase connection and camaraderie, we’re better off finding another way to entertain ourselves. Whether the Locked Bottle puzzle contains wine or beer or water or a stapler, whether it gets solved or not, it’s the people that matter.
I don't know what part of the world you're in, but here in America we’re celebrating Thanksgiving, a harvest festival as the cold and darkness of winter looms before us. It's a time of family and friends and feasting, one of several that lead up to caroling in the snow and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Wherever you are, whatever you celebrate, make the effort to connect with people who love you. Sometimes the people themselves are puzzles: maybe you don’t remember why they care, maybe you wish they loved you a different way, but the connections are worth it all the same. You don’t have to solve the puzzles, just spend time with people and connect.
And of course, Think Before You Drink.
Thanks for puzzling with me, and Happy Holidays.