Christmas Games: Snapdragon

By Robert Chambers

This is an excerpt from Chambers’ work The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character, Volume 2. (1864). This book and its excerpt are in the public domain. We have added some annotations.

Via Wikimedia Commons, from 1889, drawn by Garrett, an American version of playing Snapdragons

Some interesting particulars relative to the indoor diversions of our ancestors at Christmas, occur in the following passage quoted by Brand [1] from a tract, entitled Round about our Coal-fire or Christmas Entertainments, which was published in the early part of the last century:

‘The time of the year being cold and frosty, the diversions are within doors, either in exercise or by the fireside. Dancing is one of the chief exercises; or else there is a match at Blindman’s Bluff [2], or Puss in the Corner [3]. The next game is Questions and Commands [4], when the commander may oblige his subjects to answer any lawful question, and make the same obey him instantly, under the penalty of being smutted (having the face blackened), or paying such forfeit as may be laid on the aggressor. Most of the other diversions are cards and dice.’

From the above we gather that the sports on Christmas evenings, a hundred and fifty years ago, were not greatly dissimilar to those in vogue at the present day. The names of almost all the pastimes then mentioned must be familiar to every reader, who has probably also participated in them himself at some period of his life. Let us only add charades, that favourite amusement of modern drawing-rooms (and of these only the name, not the sport itself, was unknown to our ancestors), together with a higher spirit of refinement and delicacy, and we shall discover little difference between the juvenile pastimes of a Christmas-party in the reign of Queen Victoria, and a similar assemblage in the reign of Queen Anne or the first Georges.

One favourite Christmas sport, very generally played on Christmas Eve, has been handed down to us from time immemorial under the name of ‘Snapdragon.’ [5] To our English readers this amusement is perfectly familiar, but it is almost unknown in Scotland, and it seems therefore desirable her to give a description of the pastime. 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 endeavor, 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. As an appropriate accompaniment we introduce here:

The Song of Snapdragon

Here he comes with flaming bowl, 

Don’t he 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 makes 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!

From Wikimedia and Chambers’ book, a nineteenth century image of “Snapdragon”

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. There seems little doubt that in this amusement we retain a trace of the fiery ordeal of the Middle Ages, and also of the Druidical fire-worship of a still remoter epoch. A curious reference to it occurs in the quaint old play of Lingua, quoted by Mr. Sandys in his work on Christmas [6].

‘Memory. Oh, I remember this dish well; it was first invented by Pluto to entertain Proserpine [7] withal. Phantastes, I think not so, Memory; for when Hercules had killed the flaming dragon [8] of Hesperian, with the apples of that orchard he made this fiery meat; in memory whereof he named it Snapdragon.’

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. 

Snapdragon by Charles Keene, 1858. This illustration appeared in the Illustrated London News.

[1] Probably John Brand, author of Brand’s Popular Antiquities of Great Britain

[2] Blind man’s bluff (Wikipedia)

[3] Puss in the Corner (Wikipedia)

[4] A more archaic version of Truth or Dare

[5] Snapdragon (Wikipedia)

[6] William Sandys, Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (British Library)

[7] Persephone

[8] Ladon was the serpent-dragon who guarded the apples in the Garden of the Hesperides in Greek myth.

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