Perhaps nothing, other than tantalizing dinner smells, brings people to the same table as well as a jigsaw puzzle. Especially at holiday time, when after unwrapping presents, families and friends often welcome an activity that unifies the generations.
"Growing up, there was always a puzzle under our Christmas tree," recalls Anne Williams of Lewiston, Maine, a leading jigsaw puzzle historian. "After we opened the presents, we'd get out the card tables. You can drift in and out; you can talk or not talk; you can compete a little bit if you want to see who will finish their section first. For most people, it's a very relaxing, pleasant activity and you have the satisfaction of seeing a picture emerge as you continue your efforts."
In the Williams household, the goal was to start a 1,000-piece puzzle at Christmas and complete it by New Year's.
Stevanne Auerbach, an expert on child's play known as Dr. Toy, considers jigsaw puzzles a group entertainment bargain.
"The puzzle may be $10 or $20, but the value to the whole family of getting together and creating around that puzzle isn't measured in money," she says.
Even if young children don't enjoy smaller pieces or nonjuvenile pictures, they can be provided a separate puzzle, either on the same table or an adjoining one.
Many younger children, however, are fully capable of participating with adults, so long as the puzzles are selected with their interests and capabilities in mind.
"Even a young child can work on a puzzle that has some defined areas to it," Ms. Williams says. "For example, if there is a red boat in the picture, a young child can take all the red pieces and work on those, while the adults tackle the sky."
Part of the communal value of working on jigsaw puzzles, says Jim McWhorter, who produces the puzzlehistory.com Web site, is the way it generates casual conversation.
"If we were just sitting, looking at each other," he explains, "we wouldn't talk in quite the same free-flowing, unselfconscious way as we can working a puzzle."
This can be helpful when parents want to have serious discussions with their children without going eyeball-to-eyeball, says Cronan Minton, owner/publisher of White Mountain Puzzles in Jackson, N.H.
Many of the company's puzzles incorporate educational elements, which is in keeping with the origin of the jigsaw puzzle, the creation of 18th-century mapmakers seeking a new approach to teaching geography.
"If you're going to devote 10, 20, 30 hours to putting a puzzle together, you want to come away with some information," Minton reasons.
In today's world of high-tech virtual experiences, puzzle lovers attribute part of the jigsaw's allure to the tactile nature of handling small pieces.
Among the leading jigsawmakers are Milton Bradley, Springbok, Ravensburger, F.X. Schmid, and the Great American Puzzle Company.
Some of the best all-age puzzles are sold in specialty or gift stores, and increasingly online from such sites as Spilsbury (spilsbury.com), Jigsaw Jungle (jigsawjungle.com), and Bits & Pieces (bitsand pieces.com).
Rectangular puzzles are the old standby, but circular and shaped puzzles have their fans.
Three-dimensional puzzles, made by Wrebbit, a Canadian company, took off in the 1990s. The more ambitious puzzles, such as a 718-piece replica of the US Capitol, are aimed at older children and adults. Some view these 3-D puzzles as a "guy thing," fusing puzzle and modelmaking, thus increasing sales to men, who purchase far fewer puzzles than women.
Fine-art puzzles are popular now. Those who enjoy novelty reach for mystery story and photomosaic puzzles.
Unlike board games, which may require wading through pages of rules, a jigsaw puzzle can be begun rightaway. "It's instant gratification; you put that piece in there and it's, 'Wow,'" says Carol Monica of The Games People Play, a Cambridge, Mass., store.
Most people adopt some of the same basic strategies: Find the corner pieces and edges first; sort by color, words, and image; and give yourself plenty of room (four times as much as the puzzle dimensions is recommended).
Anne Williams likes to work on a sheet of corrugated board, which makes it easy to move the unfinished puzzle.
There are also special puzzle cloths that allow puzzles to be rolled up and put away.
Some people like to preserve their puzzles, gluing and/or laminating them, and possibly even framing them to long-remember the good times.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society