A couple of weeks ago I went to the Ashmolean Museum Christmas Party in Oxford. The Ashmolean is one of the most famous museums in the UK and one of my absolute favourite places. It was there that I first saw the 17th century engraved Bohemian glass that gave me a key idea for my book House of Shadows. I also set one of the scenes in the book there, so it was wonderful to revisit and celebrate with canapés and champagne, followed by carols in the sculpture gallery.
After the speeches and buffet we were divided into groups and given a short lecture by one of the curators on an item in the museum that had a connection to Christmas. In our case it was the snakes and ladders board in the oriental gallery. Snakes and ladders is of course a traditional Christmas game that has been played for hundreds of years. I’m told that in the US it’s called Chutes and Ladders, apparently because when it was launched in the 1940s, children didn’t like the snakes. The object of the game is to navigate one's game piece, according to the roll of the dice, from the start (bottom square) to the finish (top square), helped or hindered by ladders and snakes respectively and it is based on pure luck.
However, the game in the Ashmolean was quite different. It is an 18th century version of the game as a morality tale. Based on the idea of karma, it teaches the players all about their spiritual path to enlightenment. The snakes have names like “greed” “envy” and “pride” and represent the pitfalls for man as he or she struggles upward towards heaven. This particular board is painted on British watermarked paper and was made for a British patron in the East India Company. The instructions on the board are written in Persian and English. It’s a beautiful and very rare artefact.
Snakes and Ladders became popular in England in the 19th century when families returning from colonial India brought it with them. It was the perfect game for reflecting Victorian ideas of morality. Squares of Fulfilment, Grace and Success were accessible by ladders of Thrift, Penitence and Industry and snakes of Indulgence, Disobedience and Indolence caused one to end up in Illness, Disgrace and Poverty. While the Indian version of the game had snakes outnumbering ladders, the English counterpart was more forgiving as it contained each in the same amount. This concept of equality signifies the cultural ideal that for every sin one commits, there exists another chance at redemption.
In modern versions of the game the idea of morality has faded and it has become a game of chance although it still embodies the idea that for every ladder you hope to climb, there is a snake waiting around the corner! The phrase “back to square one” derives from the game.
Snakes and Ladders was one of my favourite Christmas games as a child and perhaps this association with Christmas has its roots in toe northern UK because each year there is a snakes and ladders championship held at Christmas in the city of Sheffield. This year we are doing the Christmas jigsaw, another game with a fascinating history. What about you? What are your favourite Christmas games?