Christmas Game Snap-Dragon From the 18th and 19th Century

When eighteenth- and nineteenth-century families came together on Christmas Eve, there were several activities that people enjoyed indoors. Besides dancing, cards, or dice, there were sometimes parlor games. One favorite parlor game played in England was called “Snap-dragon” but also known as “Snapdragon,” “Flap-dragon,” or “flapdragon.” It was a popular game from the sixteenth century and described in the following way:

“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.”[1]

Fanciful Image of a Dragon Playing the Christmas Game Snap-dragon From 1879

Fanciful image of a dragon playing snap-dragon from 1879. Author’s collection.

While snapdragon was being played, participants also usually doused the lights. This made the eerie effects from the flames more interesting. To increase weakened flames and heighten the sport, salt could also be thrown into the dish, which was said to have the added effect of “averting any risk of the liquor being drunk.”[2] Moreover, according to one eighteenth-century article, “the wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves, and snatched out the fruit.”[3]

Family Playing Snap-dragon, Public Domain

Family Playing Snap-dragon. Public domain.

Washington Irving, an American short story writer, essayist, biographer, historian, and diplomat of the early nineteenth century, once wrote about the eerie effects stating:

“It is a very pleasant sight, this gathering of the eager and pretty faces, made ghostly by the blue light of the burning dish. It renewed my youth to see the expectant fun beaming in their joyous faces. By the azure light they seemed moving in a spectral world, so often seen in pantomimes.”[4]

There was also “The Song of Snapdragon,” that went like this:

  • “Here he comes with flaming bowl,
  • don’t be mean to take his toll,
  • Snip! Snap! Dragon!
  • Take care you don’t take too much,
  • Be not greedy in your clutch,
  • Snip! Snap! Dragon!
  • With his blue and lapping tongue
  • Many of you will be stung,
  • Snip! Snap! Dragon!
  • For he snaps at all that comes
  • Snatching at his feast of plums,
  • Snip! Snap! Dragon!
  • But Old Christmas make him come,
  • Though he looks so fee! fa! fum!
  • Snip! Snap! Dragon!
  • Don’t ‘ee fear him, be but bold—
  • Out he goes, his flames are cold,
  • Snip! Snap! Dragon!”[5]

References:

  • [1] The Books of Days, 1832, p. 378.
  • [2] Halliwell-Phillipps, James Orchard,  Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs, from the Fourteenth Century, Volume 2, 1855, p. 764-765.
  • [3] Berguer, Lionel Thomas, The British Essayists: Tatler, 1823, p. 3.
  • [4] Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine, Volume 5, 1879, p. 102.
  • [5] The Books of Days, p. 378.

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