Of Oranges and Lemons, The Game of Life, and Monopoly

“Oranges and Lemons” is a game in which two children – one designated an orange and the other a lemon – hold their arms out, making an arch through which other children pass. A rhyme is sung as the children walk through. The rhyme is: “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. John’s. You owe me five farthings, say the bells of St. Dominic’s. When will you pay me, say the bells of Ta’ Ġieżu. When I grow rich, say the bells of Tal-Karmnu. When will that be, say the bells of Santu Wistin? I’m sure I don’t know, say the great bells at San Pawl. Here comes a candle to light you to bed. Here comes a chopper to chop off your head. Chop chop chip chop the last man’s head.”

At this point the arch falls on a child. The child is then asked secretly if they want to be an orange or a lemon. That child then stands behind the lemon or orange team leader. At the end of the game there is often a tug of war between the two teams to see which is the strongest.

This game is then repeated at five-yearly intervals, when the churches are replaced by San Girgor il-Kbir, Ġesu Nazzarenu, the Sacro Cuor, Stella Maris, San Ġiljan, and Tal-Karmnu (but a different one from that in the first set, though both are close to a harbour). The children are still the same, but some of them dare to change from oranges to lemons, or vice-versa. Those who do so are liable to be called traitors or suck-ups. The ritual of choosing to be an orange or a lemon is still a secret, though since the children play this game more than once in their lifetime, they often find out who was an orange and became a lemon, or vice-versa. Of course, once they choose what they be, they stand behind their leader, come what may. The game keeps the tradition of the tug of war, when the strongest emerges and is declared the winner.

Oh, I forgot to add. The children still hold their arms and make an arch, giving the impression that they have many things in common, both being from the citrus family. But, in reality, the family is split right down the middle, as one would not dream of mixing oranges and lemons in the same recipe. Ta’ Ġieżu or Sacro Cuor still ask when they will be paid, and those of San Pawl or Tal-Karmnu still reply that they don’t know. This is quite aggravating, because those who expect the payment for services rendered become frustrated when they are not paid. Also, the chopper still chops the last man’s head. The fall from being a leader to becoming a failed leader is often a spectacle in itself. Some leaders just accept the chop and fade away. Some others refuse to accept the chop, sometimes managing to become leaders again, sometimes limping on in agony clutching at all kinds of straws in a desperate attempt to survive.

It is an entertaining game, and a lot of fun is had by both sides, what with the ringing of bells and finding out which bells ring best or loudest. This is the nice side of the fun. On the other hand, the same fun is had when heads are chopped off. After all, there’s nothing more entertaining to a human than when another human is dismembered and his blood runs off. One is reminded of those most famous “games”, you know the ones at the Colosseum, with gladiatorial combats in which the loser could be stabbed through the heart or have his head chopped off.

Oh, the fun of games. I am also reminded of The Game of Life. This involves going to school, getting jobs, and hoping it all ends quickly. It hits a little close to home. Originally, it was called The Checkered Game of Life, when in 1860 its inventor Milton Bradley developed it so that American Civil War soldiers could take it with them and be reminded of how boring normal life can be. Two hundred and fifty-one years later, normal life is still boring, as most kids will tell you, even though they’ve got thousands of games to play.

But I digress. Bradley’s game had a goal, which was that the player would lead a good and moral life and end at Happy Old Age. But, if you weren’t careful, you could end up with Suicide. Between Happy Old Age and Suicide were all sorts of options, such as Poverty, Idleness, Ruin, and Disgrace. Its remake into The Game of Life seems, at first glance, to ditch the original descriptions on the board, but in real life going to school, getting a job and all that can still lead to poverty, ruin and disgrace at the worst of times and happy old age at the best.

Bradley’s game had a goal, which was that the player would lead a good and moral life and end at Happy Old Age.

And then, there is the game of games. I refer, of course, to Monopoly. Millions of people have played it, but most do not know it was invented in 1903 by Elizabeth Magie, a left-wing feminist. Lizzie, as she was known to her friends, was bewildered by the problems of the new century. They seemed so vast, starting with income inequalities so massive and the monopolists so mighty that it seemed impossible that an unknown woman working as a stenographer stood a chance at easing society’s ills with something as trivial as a board game.

But she did. Speaking about her board game, which originally was called The Landlord’s Game, Magie said that “it is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences”. Players borrow money, either from the bank or from each other, and they have to pay taxes as they circle the board. One corner contained an image of the globe and a homage to Magie’s political hero, the economist Henry George, whose ideas about putting the burden of taxation on wealthy landowners inspired the game.    

And if, by now, you still think Monopoly is just a game, think again. Don’t you think that the problems Magie thought about are still there, writ even larger? Economies have developed, wealth has multiplied, but land-grabbing and inequalities still exist, and taxation is certainly not for the wealthy. Indeed, in recent years, they have become worse. And what about Magie’s concept of the game, the never-ending circular moves on the board, the balance between winners and losers constantly in flux? The century is different, but the actors and the moves, the successes and heartaches are still the same.

So, whether it is Oranges and Lemons, The Game of Life, or Monopoly, the games on the human board still go on. Perhaps the best mind-set to play the game is to stick to the dictum that “Winning and losing do not have meaning, because some people win by losing and some lose by winning”.


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