Traditional Christmas games… OF PERIL

16 December 2010 | 2 comments

In the run-up to Christmas, we would like to heartily recommend that you do not, repeat do not, cast aside your usual pastimes for some Victorian Christmas games. We’ve just spent an hour poking around, and it turns out that in the nineteenth century, the most popular British Christmas games were those that involved grave risk of injury. There’s “Shoe the Wild Mare”, in which you balance a plank between two chairs, stand on top of it, and try to hit its underside with a hammer ten times without falling off. There’s “Hot Cockles”, in which one player shuts their eyes and everyone else takes it in turn to hit them on the back, until the eyes-shut player guesses which blow belonged to who. And there’s Snapdragon, which combines the cheery warm let’s-all-gather-round-a-table traditions of Christmas with (a) alcohol, and (b) fire.

The following description – along with the picture above – is taken from Robert Chambers’ Book of Days:

A quantity of raisins are deposited in a large dish or bowl (the broader and shallower this is, the better), and brandy or some other spirit is poured over the fruit and ignited. The bystanders now endeavour, by turns, to grasp a raisin, by plunging their hands through the flames; and as this is somewhat of an arduous feat, requiring both courage and rapidity of action, a considerable amount of laughter and merriment is evoked at the expense of the unsuccessful competitors.

Whilst the sport of Snapdragon is going on, it is usual to extinguish all the lights in the room, so that the lurid glare from the flaming spirits may exercise to the full its weird-like effect.

Snapdragon, to personify him, has a ‘poor relation’ or ‘country cousin,’ who bears the name of Flapdragon. This is a favorite amusement among the common people in the western counties of England, and consists in placing a lighted candle in a can of ale or cider, and drinking up the contents of the vessel. This act entails, of course, considerable risk of having the face singed, and herein lies the essence of the sport, which may be averred to be a somewhat more arduous proceeding in these days of moustaches and long whiskers than it was in the time of our close-shaved grandfathers.

We have now entered an era in which our moustaches are, on the whole, less extravagant than they were in 1864, but speaking as someone with no moustache at all: this still does not seem like a very good idea for a game.

2 comments on this post.

  • On 19 Dec 2010, Ben Kunz said:

    Very funny. Either our ancestors were much braver or much stupider than us. You might be interested in a recent book called “Manthropology” which argues that our human species, especially the male half, has recently become much weaker … although I do like to think we’re smarter.

    Great blog BTW, I just discovered Margaret Robinson’s wonderful fall riff on ending “gamification.” Will be checking back.


  • On 22 Dec 2010, James Wallis said:

    That is a pathetic version of Snapdragon.

    The real version involves raisins and flaming booze, yes, but also coins–traditionally sixpences, back in the days when they were worth something–in there as well.

    So do you grab for the relatively safe raisins, while the person holding the dish tips it so the flaming booze runs in the direction of your fingers, or do you go for the money? The money that has been heated up by flaming booze for a few minutes, and which the unwary will not have realised is hot enough to blister skin on contact?

    Scarred? Me? Only mentally.

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