Festive Fun! - Parlour Games by Jeni Fraser

Festive Fun! - Parlour Games by Jeni Fraser

19 Nov 2020 - 21:29 BY Jeni Fraser


This has been an odd year and you might be feeling ‘twitchy’ about the upcoming Yuletide season.  Rather than getting hung up on about who, and how many friends/family we will be allowed to meet, positive forward planning could make this the most memorable Christmas yet!

So … with lockdown 2.0 over, ditch the tech., unplug the TV - nobody knew how to have electricity-free fun like the Victorians, the inventors of the Christmas holidays.  Why not try these bracing, multi-generational and, often, downright dangerous parlour games of yesteryear?

Snapdragon was a parlour game popular from about the 16th to the beginning of the 20th century. No English Christmas Eve celebration would have been complete without a hearty game of Snapdragon.

Players of Snapdragon must find a broad, shallow bowl, and then prepare to risk their health. Into this bowl pour two dozen raisins. (If raisins are hard to come by, almonds, grapes or plums will suffice.) Then pour a bottle of brandy into the bowl so that the raisins bob up and down like drowning flies. Place the bowl on a sturdy table, turn the lights down low and, then, with appropriate panache, ignite the brandy.

To play Snapdragon, arrange your family and friends around the blazing bowl so that their faces are lit in a demonic fashion and then, one by one, take turns plunging your hands into the flames in order to try and grab a raisin. If you can accomplish this, promptly extinguish the flaming raisin by popping it into your mouth and eating it.

According to Chambers' Book of Days the game was accompanied by a chant:

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 but be bold –
Out he goes his flames are cold,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

(Source:  Chambers, Robert (1879). Chambers's Book of Days. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.)

A variant called ‘Flapdragon’ was played in the West Country. Here a lighted candle is put into a can of ale or cider and attempts are made to drink the liquor while the candle is still burning.  ‘Cassell’s Family Magazine’ published under this name in the 1870s and 1880s advised “this is not done without the face either being blackened or slightly burnt”.

If family relations have become slightly fraught over Christmas, you may be looking for a game involving rather more explicit violence, in which case, Moriarty is the game you're after.

  1. Are you there, Moriarty?

Two players are blindfolded and lie face down, head-to-head, holding each other by the left hand. Their seconds hand each of them a rolled-up newspaper. The first player calls out "Are you there, Moriarty?", his/her opponent replies "Yes", and the first player smacks them on the head as hard as s/he can with his/her rolled-up newspaper, using the voice as a clue to where his/her head is. Then the victim takes his/her turn. At a superficial level, the art of this game appears to be in the bluff and double-bluff involved in twisting your arm one way but moving the other, saying "Yes" and then moving before you can be hit, and so on. In practice, though, the game normally proceeds quite quickly to a deeper level in which one of the players secretly removes his/her blindfold and just hits his/her opponent repeatedly over the head. Proper etiquette in this situation dictates that none of the spectators should warn the victim of such dastardly cheating.

(2a) Cockfighting
For a Moriarty variant with less violence but more machismo, try cockfighting. You and your opponent lie on your backs, side-by-side, with your feet pointing in opposite directions, and link your right arms at the elbow (ie, your heads will be next to each other's waists). Then you both lift your right legs vertically and hook them around each other. The winner is the one who can pull his/her opponent's heels over his/her head in a somersault.

The trick here is to entice your opponent into overreaching themself on the "hook", and then to use their own momentum to propel them over. This is a particularly good game to play after a heavy lunch, both because you can do it lying down and because it unequivocally favours the stouter of the two players.

Bullet Pudding was extremely popular in Regency-era Britain (although its origins are much earlier) because it combined two of their favourite things: people humiliating themselves and live ammunition. Jane Austen's niece Fanny Knight described it in a letter sent to a friend :
“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.”

A family plays a game of Snapdragon, from the December 25,1858 issue of the Illustrated London News. PUBLIC DOMAIN   

Are you There, Moriarty, Image:  via dotcomgiftshop.com

The illustration by Francis Hayman (1708-1776) shows the moment when the bullet toppled from the top of the flour pyramid.
(Image: https://austenised.blogspot.com/2016/12/)
NB:  A family-friendly, socially distanced version of the game is demonstrated here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGNf9NlvcSE

On second thoughts, Perhaps a game of TIDDLEYWINKS is less dangerous? 
Tiddley Winks by William Somerville Shanks (1897) (PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Hopefully, 2021 will be a better year.


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