“When the first baby laughed for the first time, his laugh broke into a million pieces, and they all went skipping about. That was the beginning of fairies.” —The Little White Bird (1902) by J. M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan)
Disney has fairies all wrong.
Disney and other modern renderings make fairies young, tiny, beautiful, winged. They’re playful and sweet. In the game my best friend’s daughter plays, they care for plants and animals. Every little girl wants to meet a fairy.
But it wasn’t always that way. In ancient Ireland and Scotland, fairies were feared. They stole babies, misled travelers, and kidnapped people, only to return them years later, after all their loved ones were dead. Fairies belonging to the Unseelie Court enjoyed causing misfortune to humans, including paralysis and mysterious illness, simply for the fun of it. Even the more-benevolent fairies of the Seelie Court were still dangerous if angered or offended.
Folklore focuses more on protection from fairies than it does their appearance. The most common means of warding off their malice were decorating with cold iron like a horseshoe, planting rowan bushes (small mountain ash trees) by your doorway, and keeping charms made of gorse, rosemary, dill, and St. John’s Wort under your pillow or around your neck. You didn’t seek fairies out. Instead, you avoided places where they might congregate and all chances of giving offense.
And if a fairy did you a good turn, you were never, ever, under any circumstances, to thank them. Fairies believed that, if you thanked them, it meant you’d forget the good deed they’d done for you.
I wonder if they weren’t at least partly right.
I’ve done it—said thank you, moved on, and never thought about the help I received again. But if I so easily forget, I have to wonder if I was ever truly grateful at all. So even though I think thanking people is still important and polite, I’ve been trying to come up with ways to put the meaning back into it.
Revive the Art of Thank-You Notes
I’ve heard this advice over and over again, but I’ve often dismissed it as old-fashioned—until I thought about why thank-you notes are perfect…and why they’ve largely fallen by the wayside.
Writing a thank-you note costs you time, money, and effort. It takes longer to select a card, write out a message by hand, address the envelope, and take it to the post office than it does to send off an email, Facebook message, or tweet. True gratitude should cost us something.
Writing thank-you notes properly is also an art form unto itself. My mom was mortified when I hadn’t sent out all the thank-you notes for my wedding gifts within the month after my wedding, but I wanted to take the time to do them right. For each gift, I wanted to choose a specific reason I appreciated the gift and what I liked about it rather than sending out a generic “Thanks for the glasses. I’m sure we’ll use them.” In writing a good thank-you note, we’re forced to think deeply about what the other person has done for us.
Public praise gives something back. I don’t believe in doing favors just so someone will do a favor for me in return (that’s selfish). I do believe that, if someone has done something lovely for me, I should try to help them out as well, even if it’s just through putting a smile on their face by letting others know what a great person they are.
Pay It Forward by Doing a Favor for Someone Else
Hold open a door. Bring your co-worker a coffee. Call up a friend and offer to run an errand for them. Each time we do something for a new person, it reminds us of the times others have done something nice for us too. In a way, it makes their good deed immortal.
Do you think we sometimes say thank you by rote and too easily forget what’s been done for us? What other creative ways can you think of to express true gratitude?