The Season of the Wish by Kelly Jarvis
Editor's Note: We have a delightful essay on wishing today by our very own Kelly Jarvis. She does a deep dive into wishing in popular culture.
Wishing is always in season. When my boys were little, they would run through the fields of late spring and early summer gathering fistfuls of dandelion stalks to use for wishing. Once they had plucked all they could carry, they would blow on the stems, sending their wishes into the air with each downy white seed that flurried across the breeze. On winter evenings, when another form of soft white magic was blown down from the sky, my boys would search the horizon for the first star and wish for a “Snow Day” filled with the hot cocoa taste of freedom from school.
Wishing is always in season in fairy tales, too. While fairy tale variants shape and reflect the cultural conditions of the places they are told, the act of wishing is a universal quality of the stories, emerging in collected oral tales, literary renditions, and 21st century films. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty both famously begin with the wish for a child, and the wished-for children of fairy tales soon grow up to make wishes of their own, even when, in the case of Charles Perrault’s Cinderella, they are unable to articulate exactly what they are wishing for.
Wishing is central to the contemporary fairy tales of Walt Disney which has turned a genie, a blue fairy, and an evening star into animated wish fulfillers. Perhaps most famous of all is their unique presentation of a kind-hearted fairy godmother, a construct most recently explored by the film, Godmothered, which attempts to give the donor character of fairy tale fame a turn in the title role. Even Disney soundtracks are full of memorable songs about wishing and wanting, and the theme park’s popular fireworks show, Wishes, ran for an unprecedented thirteen years.
Although Disney may put its trademark “happily ever after” spin on the act of wishing, many traditional tales, gathered under the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index 750A The Foolish Wishes, caution against the folly of wishing and imply that wishers often end up worse than they began. In The Three Wishes, a version of the tale collected by Joseph Jacobs, a poor woodcutter is offered three wishes in exchange for sparing a forest tree from his axe. That evening, tired and hungry after a long day’s work, he wishes for a link of black pudding which magically appears before him. When his wife realizes he has squandered a precious wish, she angrily wishes for the black pudding to be stuck to the end of his nose, and the couple is forced to use the third wish to set everything back to the way it was. The variants of this fairy tale have been explored in depth, and its pattern inspired the short horror story The Monkey’s Paw, published in 1902 by W.W. Jacobs. Each version ends by exposing the folly of humanity and the dangers inherent in the act of wishing.
In spite of the dangers, wishing persists, spurred on season after season by folklore. People have thrown their wishes into wells, tied them to trees with colorful ribbons, and released them into the sky with the soft glow of lanterns. People have imbued ordinary objects with magical powers, turning ladybugs, lamps, clovers, and candles into instruments of achieving desire. Some say wishing should take place at a specific time of the year, like a birthday, when the smoke from blown-out candles carries wishes up to heaven, and others say wishing is best done at random times, like the moment the first red-breasted robin of spring alights on the lawn. New wish-making rituals are constantly being created and circulated within family structures; my older sister taught me to make wishes on watermelon seeds. On the hazy summer days of our childhood, we would each make three different wishes on three juicy watermelon seeds, sticking them on our foreheads to dry slowly in the hot sun. Only the seeds which stayed on our heads the longest would grant us the wishes we had made upon them, and we giggled, our fingers crossed for luck, as the seeds slowly shifted and slid down our sweaty faces taking our little girl dreams with them.
One October day when my son was four years old, I told him that he could make a wish upon a falling leaf if he could catch it before it hit the ground. A breeze was blustering around us, and my little boy, who loved the wish-filled fairy tale Aladdin, ran back and forth for hours under the plummeting leaves, stretching his hands toward the magic foliage he believed would grant him his cave of wonders. The task was not easy, but by the afternoon’s end, my son had two crinkling wishes clutched tight in his hands, and he leaned close to whisper them into my ear. His first wish was to have all the toys he had ever dreamed of having, but his second wish surprised me. “I wish for you to have all the beautiful things, Mommy”, he said, unable to articulate exactly what those things might be. The dying sunlight slipped through butterscotch-stained leaves and danced in his amber eyes as he spoke, and I marveled at how quickly his wish had come true; in that precious moment when my little boy used his second wish for me, I was surrounded by the most beautiful things I could imagine.
Perhaps wishing is always in season because we have so few seasons together on this earth. Wishes may seem trivial, but they also give voice to our deepest desires, our innermost longings, and our human yearning for something more than the mortal life we have been given. The act of wishing is an astounding expression of faith in the design of the universe, giving us hope that something as common as a leaf, a seed, or a star in the sky just might be the magical object that will season our days with beauty and make our wishes, and the wishes of those we love, come true.
Kelly Jarvis teaches classes in literature, writing, and fairy tale at Central Connecticut State University, The University of Connecticut, and Tunxis Community College. She lives, happily ever after, with her husband and three sons in a house filled with fairy tale books. She is also Enchanted Conversation’s special project’s writer.