Tag Archives: Snap-Dragon

The Lost Game Of Snap-Dragon

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.

The Lost Game Of Bullet Pudding

Despite its name, an abbreviation of the Swahili word kujenga, meaning to build, the fiendish game of Jenga is a British invention. The brainchild of Leslie Scott, it was first marketed at the London Toy Fair in January 1983. The starting point is to build a tower from the 54 wooden blocks that make a set and then each player takes it in turn to remove a block and then place it on top of the structure which becomes increasingly unstable. It takes a steady hand and some luck not to send the structure crashing down with a loud thud accompanied by the gleeful cheers of your fellow players. I have always liked to think that this visual and practical demonstration of the stability of structures is part of the (ahem) foundation course for would-be architects.

Games involving the come-uppance of a clumsy player have a long legacy. A game that proved a bit of a hit in the Regency period was Bullet Pudding, a mix of Jenga and the children’s game, Pie Face, and apple bobbing. Fanny Austen Knight, Jane Austen’s niece, was a fan of the game, mentioning it at least twice in her surviving correspondence. In 1806, she wrote “different amusements every evening! We had Bullet Pudding, then Snap-Dragon” – we will look at that curious game another time – “and…we danced or played cards”. Sounds fun.

Not everyone knew of or was enamoured by Bullet Pudding and, fortunately, one of Fanny’s correspondents, a Miss Dorothy Chapman, was blissfully unaware of the delights of the game. This prompted the incredulous Fanny to give her a detailed description of the fun and japes they had at Godmersham Park in a letter from 1808.

I can do no better than to quote it in full. The lack of punctuation and the breathlessness in the description is Fanny’s; “I was surprised that you did not know what a Bullet Pudding is but as you don’t I will endeavour to describe it as follows: You must have a large pewter dish filled with flour which you must pile up into a sort of pudding with a peek at top. You must then lay a bullet at top and everybody cuts a slice of it, and the person that is cutting it when it falls must poke about with their noses and chins till they find it and then take it out with their mouths of which makes them strange figures all covered with flour but the worst is that you must not laugh for fear of the flour getting up your nose and mouth and choking you: You must not use your hands in taking the Bullet out”.

You can imagine the reaction of the rest of the players as the unfortunate loser emerged with their faces covered in flour. If you did not have a bullet, a coin of the realm would do just as well. The servants must have groaned inwardly when they heard that their betters were proposing a game, thinking of the mess that would be left for them to clear up.

As well as the mess and seeing one of your part undergo a mild form of humiliation, one of the attractions of the game was that it allowed both sexes to mix in fairly intimate circumstances and such opportunities were to be snatched at in their otherwise closely chaperoned world. Sadly, the delights of the game soon waned but its legacy is still with us to this day.

The illustration at the top of this post was by Francis Hayman and shows the moment when the bullet toppled from the top of the pyramid of flour to the delight of all bar one.