Those who bemoan the influence of ‘Elf and Safety on the way we conduct ourselves may lament the disappearance of the wacky game of Snap-dragon which was particularly popular around Christmas. It is fascinating to speculate how many hosts sent their guests to bed on Christmas Eve nursing blistered hands and scorched tongues. The game, which one contemporary noted “provided a considerable amount of laughter and merriment at the expense of the unsuccessful competitors”, was simple enough and even merited a definition in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755.
All you needed was a bowl, some brandy, and raisins. First you placed the raisins in the bowl and then poured the brandy in. Your guests, trembling in anticipation of the excitement and perils ahead of them, would be commanded to stand around the bowl, which was strategically positioned in the centre of the table to protect the players from the inevitable splashes of burning brandy. The brandy would then be set alight and the object of the game was to plunge your hand into the fiery liquid, extract a raisin and eat it.
Johnson defined it more eloquently; “a play in which they catch raisins out of branding brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them”. Richard Steele game some colour in his piece for Tatler, commenting “the wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves, and snatched out the fruit”. To jolly things along and heighten the tension even more, you could chant a rhyme at the start of the proceedings; “with the 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!”
The game’s origins date back to at least the sixteenth century, gaining name checks in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594) and Henry IV Part II (1598). The 18th and 19th centuries saw it at its height of popularity. Jane Austen’s niece, Fanny Austen Knight, wrote in 1806 “different amusements every night? We had Bullet Pudding, then Snap-Dragon and…we danced or played cards”. The game of Snap-Dragon is mentioned in such disparate literary sources as Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm. Indeed, the game was part of the Yuletide tradition until its popularity was extinguished early in the 20th century when people became a little more attuned to thinking that singeing guests was not playing cricket.
So popular was the game that the distinguished scientist, Michael Faraday, was moved to give a chemical explanation of the Snap-Dragon phenomenon in his The Chemical History of the Candle, published in 1860. His thesis was that the raisins acted like miniature wicks, and rather like when you pour brandy on a Christmas pudding, it is hot but not hot enough to incinerate the fruit. Even so, for the unwary there was a nasty treat in store.
If you did not have any raisins to hand, almonds would do and any flammable drink could replace brandy. A variant of the game involved the placing of a lighted candle in a cup of ale or cider and the player was invited to drink without singeing their face. A beard or moustache would be a distinct handicap. In the United States the game was associated with Halloween as much as Christmas.
To add extra spice to the proceedings, one of the raisins had a gold button attached to it or, failing that, was designated as the lucky fruit. Whoever succeeded in extracting the special raisin was given a favour or treat of their choosing. In another variant, whoever extracted the most raisins was predicted to meet the love of their life within the next twelve months. I wonder if they did.