Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas Snap-dragon

Of all the strange Christmas traditions observed in English-speaking countries over the years—kissing under the mistletoe, hanging stockings by the fire, standing in line to sit on Santa’s lap—the strangest of all may have been the playing of a parlor game called snap-dragon. It literally involved playing with fire.

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 alcohol was then set alight, creating an eerie blue flame. Participants would dart a hand into the fire to pluck out a prize, and the alcohol-covered treat would continue to burn until the victorious player popped it into his or her mouth to extinguish it. The fun was in the daring required, and the excitement of watching one’s fellow participants risk injury, blue flames clinging to their lips and hands.

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.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the danger involved, the game remained popular throughout the nineteenth century. In The Pickwick Papers (1836), Charles Dickens writes, “When they were all tired of blind-man's buff, there was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisins were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper...” Twenty-five years later, Anthony Trollope included an extended passage in Orley Farm in which his characters play snap-dragon: “Snap-dragon by candlight? Who ever heard of such a thing?” says Madeline Stavely. “It would wash all the dragon out of it, and leave nothing but the snap. It is a necessity of the game that it should be played in the dark, —or rather by its own lurid light.” Lewis Carroll even included a “snap-dragon-fly” in Through the Looking Glass: “Its body is made of plum pudding, its wings of holly-leaves, and its head is a raisin burning in brandy."

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 EverettAlyssa 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.


Shelley Munro said...

I've often wondered about people getting burned while playing this game. The reward doesn't seem worth the risk :)

Alyssa Everett said...

Someone told me the alcohol burns at a low enough temperature that people don't burn at once, but I wouldn't want to give it a try. Thanks for stopping by, Shelley!

Katherine Bone said...

Ooh, this is a game I haven't heard of, Shelley! Thank you for sharing this fabulous game trivia! ;)

Chris Bailey said...

When I was in college, I knew a guy who burned off his eyebrows drinking a Flaming Hooker--a drink with lighted alcohol on top. Despite electric lights, we can still do dumb things.