Picnic–the joyful experience of eating good food in the open air while enjoying the company of friends and family in a relaxed atmosphere–is on the wane in the western world. More of us gather around the barbecue in the back yard. More still don’t eat outside at all, or migrate from the inside of our favourite restaurant to its summertime patio.
Picnicking is practised most by first and second generation immigrants for whom this tradition still holds value. A fast-paced lifestyle that makes no time for relaxed appreciation of what others have to offer us and what we can happily share with them finds no room for picnics. Unlike back yard barbecues, picnics were usually held in beautiful natural environments.
Traditionally, picnics were a way for extended families to get together to share stories and get caught up on each other’s affairs when no home was large enough to hold the group. The gathering had to be held outdoors to accommodate so many people.
In addition to lacking time, today’s city people have little interest in their extended family members, so “catching up” would be considered a waste of time. We tend to associate with those relatives who can benefit us through their own influence or their respective contact networks.
While we in the western world supposedly support “family values,” as a society we lack appreciation for the value of the family itself. Thus we find picnics with extended family members unnecessary, if not anachronistic and inconvenient.
Picnics became popular in the 19th century, before cell phones with text messaging, before VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phones that allow us to speak in real time with people in any part of the world that has internet connection, before televisions, even before radio. In general, they were large get-togethers held in the warmer months so people could engage in simple forms of fun together. They usually had a specific purpose, always social, involving an extended family, a church group, a service club or a Sunday school.
Not all picnics were of this nature. Some were simply single family outings, usually to scenic spots, where people sprawled on blankets and ate al fresco, which gave the food a special characteristic you couldn’t get at home. Some said “It’s the sunshine” that made picnic food taste so good, for others it was the open air that did not wreak of city smells.
While family picnics were well planned for food–the feature form of entertainment for the event–the extended family or group picnic was more potluck. Each family brought a lot of one or two things–like a potluck supper–and everyone ate from what was at hand. As much as the kids hoped that every family would bring dessert, it never happened. Moms were too careful to let that happen.
Every picnic had its downside, whether it was rain, ants or forgetting the condiments for the potato salad. The odd time they even stirred up old resentments among family members. But in times past–less so today–people were willing to set aside those differences (most of the time) in order to recognize the value of family.
After all, when tragedy struck, it was your family you turned to for support. Today people don’t believe that tragedy will ever strike them and are shocked when it does, leaving them alone in the world without a support system to turn to. Picnics, in a sense, were an indicator of the interdependence of the community.
Extended family picnics were social occasions. Staying in touch with extended family–grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, second cousins, kissing cousins and the children of them all–had value. As most single families ate meals together at home, social occasions were not necessary for them in the same way.
How did single family picnics get started? One theory is interesting.
Today, cemeteries are lonely places where few people go to express their grief for the loss of a loved one other than for the actual burial ceremony. After that, cemeteries tend to be more places where teenagers can hang out without parents or security oversight. And, in some cases, where drugs may be bought and used apart from prying eyes.
Cemetery plots are cared for, indefinitely, by cemetery staff through a fund purchased when the plot itself is bought. That development happened within my own lifetime. When I was a kid, families had to look after the grave sites of family members and others they once cared for. Cemetery plots were tended by the loved ones left behind when someone died.
As caring for grave sites often involved some travelling as parents and children became separated over time, especially with young people flocking to cities as older parents tended to stay in more rural areas, it may have happened only once or twice a year that a family would make a trip to the cemetery to tend to the grass and plant flowers around the grave site.
There was clearly work involved in only tending to a grave site a couple of times each year. Everyone’s help was needed, even from the kids. As the whole process took some time, food and beverage were brought to get people through the event. Food and beverage became the second focus of the visit.
As few people believed that real people–as opposed to discarded and decaying bodies–were in the graves, tending the graves of family members (often several generations of them in the same cemetery) was a solemn occasion–just plain work–unless something was done to lighten up the day.
Food and beverage did that. So did playing games after the meal. In those early days of picnics, cemeteries were not supposed to be as quiet and sedate as churches. It was quite all right to have fun there after the gardening and open air dining were over.
People enjoyed the non-gardening part of the event so much that they chose to have other picnics, such as at a beach or in a park or other natural setting. This happened more as people had more leisure time. They felt they could be more natural, more relaxed, less guarded, while enjoying themselves in the open air, surrounded by natural beauty.
Today we don’t have picnics much, so we have to consciously teach our children about nature or they don’t learn the lessons. The less they know about nature, the more inclined they are to look away as big corporations clear cut forests, create great fissures covering many hectares with open pit mining and freely pollute the air and waterways with their waste. And we eat food produced using growth hormones, pesticides and chemicals with names so long they’re hard to pronounce let alone understand what they mean and what their long term effects on our bodies are.
Picnics may have been imperfect, but they were pure. We can’t say that about many things in our lives any more.
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers who want to know what to teach their children that schools don’t teach, and when is the best time to teach these lessons.
Learn more at http://billallin.com