In the 19th century, a regular Christmas was a little different. For holiday fun, revelers in the United States, Canada and England scared their friends with ghost stories, fortune-telling, and played boisterous party games. One of these, the so-called snapdragon, was a parlour game popular from about the 16th century and is rarely part of anyone’s Christmas these days. After all, it involves pulling sweets from a puddle of flames!
The game itself is simple: take a wide, flat plate, and cover it with raisins. Carry the plate into a dark room, and douse the fruit and nuts with brandy. Then, ignite the brandy, plunge your hands into the ghostly blue flames, and eat as many of the boozy snacks as you can without getting burned.
Other treats could also be used. Of these, almonds were the most common alternative or addition, but currants, candied fruit, figs, grapes, and plums also sometimes featured. Salt could be sprinkled in the bowl and, in one alternative version, a Christmas pudding is placed in the centre of the bowl with raisins around it.
Many revelers, up to the early 20th century, considered snapdragon a funny way to pass the time on a regular cold winter’s evening. Half the fun, said someone, was to see your opponent look like a demon as he burnt himself and snatched at the raisins.
Despite its origins are a mystery, it seems that snapdragon was played in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare mentioned a similar game in his plays, with characters referring to it as flap-dragon. References to the same game appeared in later literary works as well, by writers ranging from Charles Dickens to Lewis Caroll and Samuel Johnson.
There were several other traditions surrounding the game of snapdragon, for istance the belief that the person who snatches the most treats out of the brandy will meet their true love within a year. In another tradition, one of the raisins contained a gold button to become “the lucky raisin”. The person who fished the raisin out could claim a reward or boon (favor) of their choosing.
In any case, according to several sources, snapdragon is really, really fun.
So why does no one play it anymore?
There could be any number of reasons, from people becoming wary of open flames in the home, to increasingly protective parents, despite it may not be as dangerous as it seems.
But here, the reason is simple: the blue flame is actually the result of chemiluminescence, not thermal radiation, a phenomenon that produces light, but not much heat. After all, brandy is often only around 50 percent alcohol, meaning it won’t burn as hot as something higher-strong.
As for why it’s possible to snatch raisins and almonds from the plate without getting seriously burned, that’s simple, as well: these treats don’t conduct heat all that well, and cool off very quickly.
In short, the concept is similar to that of burning brandy on top of Christmas puddings – the brandy is burning, but is not burning at a high enough temperature to consume the raisins. Nevertheless, children often burnt their hands or mouths playing this game, which may have led to the practice mostly dying out in the early 20th century.
Either way, in modern Christmas days, the fire tends to stay in the fireplace, the brandy stays in the bottles or in eggnog and everyone stays far away from flaming games….