The game consisted of warming some form of alcohol—brandy was traditional—in a large, shallow bowl and floating treats in it, typically raisins but sometimes items like almonds, plums or candied fruit.
This 1858 depiction of “Snapdragon” by the artist Charles Keene (1823-1891) appeared in the Illustrated London News.
The origins of the game are old enough that Shakespeare makes reference to it, using an older variation of its name, flap-dragon. In Love’s Labour’s Lost the rustic character Costard says, “Thou are easier swallowed than a flapdragon,” and in Henry IV Part 2, Falstaff refers to a character with “a weak mind and an able body” as someone who “drinks off candles’ ends for flap-dragons.”
Though the practice apparently began as an individual drinking game, we know it had evolved into a group activity by the eighteenth century because Dr. Johnson defines flapdragon in his 1755 Dictionary as “A play in which they catch raisins out of burning brandy, and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them.” We also know the game was alive and well during the regency, since Grose’s 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defines it as “Christmas gambol: raisins and almonds being put into a bowl of brandy, and the candles extinguished, the spirit is set on fire, and the company scramble for the raisins.”
It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt. In this 1887 illustration from “Holly Leaves” (the Christmas edition of The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News), one child appears to have burned his fingers.
Eventually, however, electricity arrived to shed its own lurid light, and people became a bit more leery of playing near open flames, or perhaps parents just became more cautious about small children plunging their hands into fiery alcohol. Snap-dragon fell out of favor, and now the game is little more than a literary footnote. Still, the next time you’re looking for a way to liven up the holidays, you might want to play...No, on second thought, Jenga is a lot less likely to cause serious injury.
Merry Christmas, and happy New Year!
Alyssa Everett's debut regency romance, Ruined by Rumor, is currently available from Carina Press, and her second regency, Lord of Secrets, will be out March 25, 2013. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.