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The traditions of chips, medallions and birthdays vary in different parts of the country and I thought it would be interesting to present some of their history.
There is evidence that early on many people in AA carried personal momentos to remind themselves of the importance of their sobriety. Clarence H. Snyder - "The Home Brewmeister had his last drink on February 11, 1938 and he carried this medallion made from a silver dollar and a watchfob up until just before his death on March 22, 1984. It has been dated back into the mid-1940's, if not before, and the holes represent 46 years of sobriety. Clarence started AA group #3 in Cleveland in 1939, and in the beginning had a higher recovery rate than Bill and Dr. Bob combined. His story, "Home Brewmeister", can be found on page 297 of the Big Book.
Sister lgnatia, the nun who helped Dr. Bob get the hospitalization program started at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron was the first person to use medallions in Alcoholics Anonymous. She gave the drunks who were leaving St. Thomas after a five day dry out a Sacred Heart Medallion and instructed them that the acceptance of the medallion signified a commitment to God, to A.A. and to recovery and that if they were going to drink, they had a responsibility to return the medallion to her before drinking. Click to see Sacred Heart Medallion The sacred heart medallions had been used prior to A.A. by the Father Matthew Temperance Movement of the 1840's and the Pioneers, an Irish Temperance Movement of the 1890's.
The practice of giving sobriety chips in A.A. is attributed to a Group in Elmira, N.Y. in 1947. The celebration of birthdays came from the Oxford Group where they celebrated the anniversary of their spiritual rebirth. People in early A.A. chose the anniversary of the date of their last drink.
Early celebrations of birthdays resulted in people getting drunk and Dr. Harry Tiebout was asked to look at the problem and he commented on this phenomenon in an articled titled "When the Big "I" Becomes Nobody", (AAGV, Sept. 65):
"Early on in A.A., I was consulted about a serious problem plaguing the local group. The practice of celebrating a year's sobriety with a birthday cake had resulted in a certain number of the members getting drunk within a short period after the celebration. It seemed apparent that some could not stand prosperity. I was asked to settle between birthday cakes or no birthday cakes. Characteristically, I begged off, not from shyness but from ignorance. Some three or four years later, A.A. furnished me the answer. The group no longer had such a problem because, as one member said, "We celebrate still, but a year's sobriety is now a dime a dozen. No one gets much of a kick out of that anymore."
The A.A. Grapevine carried many articles on chips and cakes and the following is a brief summary of some.
Feb. 1948 - Why All the Congratulations? "When we start taking bows (even on anniversaries) we bow ourselves right into the cuspidor."
July, 1948 - Group To Give Oscar for Anniversaries. The Larchmont Group of Larchmont, N.Y. gives a cast bronze camel mounted on a mahogany base to celebrate 1st., 5th and 10th anniversaries. "The camel is wholly emblematic of the purposes of most sincere A.A.s, i.e., to live for 24 hours without a drink."
August 1948 - The Artesia, N.Mex. Group awards marbles to all members. If you are caught without your marbles, you are fined 25 cents. This money goes into the Foundation Fund.
June 1953 - We operate a poker chip club in the Portland Group (Maine). We have poker chips of nine colors of which the white represents the probation period of one month. If he keeps his white chip for one month he is presented with a red chip for one month's sobriety. The chips continue with blue for two months, black for three, green for four, transparent blue for five, amber for six, transparent purple for nine months and a transparent clear chip for one year. We have our chips stamped with gold A.A. letters. Also at the end of the year and each year thereafter, we present them with a group birthday card signed by all members present at the meeting.
January 1955 - Charlotte, N.C. "When a man takes "The Long Walk" at the end of a meeting, to pick up a white chip, he is admitting to his fellow men that he has finally accepted the precepts of A.A. and is beginning his sobriety. At the end of three months he exchanges his white chip for a red one. Later, a handsome, translucent chip of amber indicates that this new member has enjoyed six months of a new way of life. The nine month chip is a clear seagreen and a blue chip is given for the first year of sobriety. In some groups a sponsor will present his friend with an engraved silver chip, at the end of five years clear thinking and clean living. Click to see Grapevine Article
March 1956 - The One Ton Poker Chip. Alton, Illinois. Author gave friend a chip on his first day eight years ago (1948) and told him to accept it in the spirit of group membership and that if he wanted to drink to throw the chip away before starting drinking.
October 1956 - Bangor Washington. Article about a woman who sits in a bar to drink, the bartender sees her white chips and asks what it is. She tells him. He throws her out as he does not want an alcoholic in his bar. She calls friend.
April 1957 - Cape Cod, Mass. Group recognizes 1st, 5th and 15th anniversaries. Person celebrating leads meeting. Person is presented with a set of wooden carved plaques with the slogans.
July 1957 - New Brunswick, Canada. Birthday Board. Member contributes one dollar for each year of sobriety
July 1957 - Oregon. Person is asked to speak and is introduced by his or her sponsor. The wife, mother, sister or other relative brings up a cake. The Group sings Happy Birthday. The wife gives a two or thee minute talk.
April 1959 - Patterson, N.J. People are asked to give "three month pin talks."
And that's a little bit of info on chips, cakes and medallions.
I got my first AA sobriety white marble the day I got sober, (I only had two marbles left when I got to AA, one was lost and the other was out looking for it.) The group gave me another marble at 30 days, 90 days, 6 months and a blue poker chip at a year. For my second year Tex gave me a bronze medallion, with this comment, "I am not going to congratulate you in giving you this chip. Why the hell should we congratulate you for doing what you should have been doing all along. But I am going to say 'Well Done, you have earned it!'"
And I will never forget the momento Tex gave me about three weeks into sobriety, a 45ACP round to use as a worry bead in my pocket and to remember his injunction "My babies don't get drunk. If you decide you want to take the easier softer way out, come borrow the pistol, you have the bullet!!" And I still have it and sobriety!!
They both saved and gave me a life!!
As in so many things, especially with we alcoholics, our History is our Greatest Asset!.. We each arrived at the doors of AA with an intensive and lengthy "History of Things That Do Not Work" .. Today, In AA and In Recovery, Our History has added an intensive and lengthy "History of Things That DO Work!!" and We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it!!
KEEP COMING BACK!
On the Web Jan 6, 2002
in the Spirit of Cooperation
Three mighty important things, Pardn'r, LOVE And PEACE and SOBRIETY