A brief item by “J. C.” in the February 1 issue of the TLS takes note of a new book by Steve Roud, Monday’s Child is Fair of Face, described as a collection of “traditional beliefs about babies.” J.C. comments: “It leaves the impression that babies were traditionally in constant danger”–something often reflected in nursery rhymes. He seems more inclined than Roud is to accept the view that “Ring a ring a roses” comes from the Great Plague of 1666 which helps explain the line “A-choo, A-choo, All fall down.” (I learned it as “Ashes, ashes”, but there seem to be many variants on it.) Then there is “Rock (orig. Hush) a bye baby, with its pessimistic: “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, Down will come baby, cradle and all.”
Of course, childbirth, infancy and childhood were far more precarious in earlier centuries than they are in the developed West–but think of so many parts of Africa, still. But culturally, these and other evils were not kept from the knowledge of children as commonly as they are today. Life was grittier, dirtier, more pungent. My paternal grandmother sang a Slovak version of the playful “Patty Cake, Patty Cake,” and when we later asked for a translation, we learned that the repeated chorus was “If you fart, it will stink.” And she sang another one that sounds as it were the Slovak equivalent of “Roll me over in the clover.” I doubt that it was only Slovaks who were so earthy.
When we were children, we would love it when my father would put us to bed and give into our pleas, “Tell us a story.” He knew the Beatric Potter stories, and would amuse us with his own variants on them. But one of the stories he occasionally told was Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl,” which ends with the little girl freezing to death on a bitter cold New Year’s Eve–not exactly the story one might expect a parent to choose in order to send his children off to dreamland. I asked my siblings about this, and one of them suggested, “Maybe he wanted us to be grateful for what we had.”