24 December 2012

Snap-dragon on Christmas Eve

Snap-dragon (also known as Flap-dragon) was a parlour game popular from about the 16th to 19th centuries. It was played during the winter, particularly on Christmas Eve. Brandy was heated and placed in a wide shallow bowl; raisins were placed in the brandy which was then set alight. Typically, lights were extinguished or dimmed to increase the eerie effect of the blue flames playing across the liquor. The aim of the game was to pluck the raisins out of the burning brandy and eat them, at the risk of being burnt...

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 featured... The low bowl was typically placed in the middle of a table to prevent damage from the inevitable splashes of burning brandy. In one variation a Christmas pudding is placed in the centre of the bowl with raisins around it...

The first printed references to snap-dragons or flap-dragons are in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost (1594): "Thou art easier swallowed than a flapdragon."

By the mid-19th century Snap-dragon was firmly entrenched as a Christmas parlour game, and it is in this sense that it is referenced in 1836, in Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers and in 1861, in Anthony Trollope's novel Orley Farm.  Lewis Carroll, in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) describes "A snap-dragon-fly. Its body is made of plum pudding, its wings of holly-leaves, and its head is a raisin burning in brandy."

Agatha Christie's book Hallowe'en Party describes a children's party )during which a child's murder causes Hercule Poirot to be brought in to solve the case) at which Snap-dragon is played at the end of the evening...

Michael Faraday, in his essay The Chemical History of a Candle (1860), suggested that the raisins in Snap-dragon act like miniature wicks. 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.
I think the game should be restarted at Christmas, even at the risk of burning hands.  (Reposted from 2010)


  1. Glad you like it. My family has continued to do this, right through the centuries. Didn't know 'til I grew up that everyone else didn't, too!

  2. Thank you for this. I'm currently reading the Pickwick Papers and Dickens mentions the game of snapdragon - the synchronicity of my puzzlement and you providing the answer was perfect!


    1. Found it: "When they all tired of blind-man’s buff, there was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisins were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail..."

      Thank you, anon!


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