Do you relate Christmas to burning yourself over flames while trying to grab hold of fruits and nuts?
If you were living in the 19th century, that’s part of what you’d look forward to during the holiday season.
Let me explain.
Snap-dragon is the game we’re talking about. To play, you turn down the lights, lay out fruits and/or nuts on a plate (I’ve seen raisins, grapes, and almonds mentioned), pour brandy over them, light them on fire, and then reach into the fire to try to grab them without getting hurt. Bonus points if you eat them without destroying your entire mouth.
Look at the picture above. This fire hazard was a family game that included children.
Also, note that they’re reaching in without even rolling up their sleeves. I’m speechless.
About snap-dragon, 19th century journalist Richard Steele wrote in Tatler, “The wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon as we burnt ourselves and snatched at the fruit.” (Tatler, No. 85) Looking like a demon probably fit in with telling ghost stories and sending creepy cards at Christmastime.
But snap-dragon really was a thing. Eliza Cook, a Victorian poet, writes of the game and its Christmassy feel, “We shall have sport when Christmas comes, / When ‘snap-dragon’ burns our fingers and thumbs.”
You can also find it mentioned in Victorian literature, particularly Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers and Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm, and even an Agatha Christie book. There are mentions from Shakespeare’s time until far after the game lost its Christmas luster.
As Christmas trees became more and more popular in the 1860s, snap-dragon’s popularity plummeted in America, much to some people’s chagrin.
If you’d like to read the account of a man who remembered playing snap-dragon (also known as flapdragon) when he was young, read pages 341-342 of The North American Review, Volume 220. Clemence Dane remembers how his parents set it up as a kid and the fun they had. Their version included coins too! And he goes on to talk more about Christmas in 1924.