Snap-dragon and Christmas Traditions, by Lelia Eye

Snap-dragon and Christmas Traditions, by Lelia Eye

Here you can behold a mighty dragon playing the game of Snap-dragon!
This image is from the Book of Days by Robert Chambers (1879).

In “The Matchmaking Schemes of Anne de Bourgh,” a short story in the Mistletoe and Mischief anthology that I co-authored with Jann Rowland and Colin Rowland last Christmas, I featured the Regency game of Snap-dragon.

The game, with its element of danger, is fascinating to me. I’ve always been the sort of person to stare in awe at people who swallow fire or jump through burning hoops–or even those brave souls who lick their fingers and put out a burning candle with the bored air of someone ripping off a sheet of toilet paper. As a Grade A coward when it comes to risks to the flesh of my fingers, I find that the awe factor feels quite extreme to me.

Snap-dragon was a game played during the Regency during the winter, but most particularly on Christmas Eve. A wide and shallow bowl was set up (usually in the middle of the table so that less damage was caused by splashes of hot brandy), and raisins were placed inside it. Sometimes, almonds were used in place of raisins, and other alternatives included figs, currants, grapes, plums, and candied fruits. Heated brandy (or another flammable liquor) was then placed on top of the raisins. The room was typically darkened so that when the brandy was set on fire, the spectacle was made all the more impressive.

The brandy would burn blue, which looks especially magnificent in a dark room, as you can see in this clip just after the 2-minute mark:

You must then show your courage by grabbing a raisin and placing it in your mouth! For a brief moment before the fire is extinguished by your mouth, you will look much like a fire-breathing dragon.

At least, that is what will happen for the brave souls. I don’t imagine I could force myself to get to that point! I rather think I would be much more inclined to simply participate in the chant referenced in Robert Chambers’ 1879 Book of Days:

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!

There seem to be some other traditions that surround this parlor game. For instance, some believed that whoever took the most raisins out of the flaming brandy would meet his or her true love within the near year. In another tradition, a “lucky raisin” contained a gold button, and whoever found the lucky raisin would be able to claim a boon of their own choosing.

None of my own Christmas traditions have been nearly so daring. Still, they are enough to fill me with warmth during the Christmas season. Here are some things I do or have done:

  • We typically read a version of “‘Twas the Night before Christmas.” Since my mom collected different versions before she passed, we have several different kinds – from the Cajun Night before Christmas to Clement Clarke Moore’s original version with Donder the reindeer rather than Donner.
  • When I was a kid, my brother and I would hunt through the Christmas tree to find the pickle ornament and win a present. It’s supposedly a German tradition, but like many traditions, the origins are a bit fuzzy. I have to wait until my youngest is a little older before I can revive this one in my own home.
  • When my second child was born, I started a tradition that I had once read about. I wrap each child’s gift in a different kind of paper, and on Christmas morning, the wrapping paper for each child is taped on the door frame to their room, and they break through it to learn which one belongs to them. (My youngest can’t appreciate this yet, but it still works since the oldest can.)
  • One tradition we do is letting the kids open one present on Christmas Eve. My friend’s mom did that for her as a kid – but the present was always Christmas pajamas! My mom would let us open actual toys, though we often had to beg her before she finally conceded to let us open something!
  • One thing my mom started when I was a kid was a Christmas journal where she wrote a page or two about what we did that year and sometimes what big presents were received. I didn’t even know she did it until after she passed and my dad gave the journal to me for me to take up the mantle. This is something I highly recommend for everyone who celebrates Christmas. It’s enjoyable to look back at what happened the different years, and if you have kids, it’s something they will be able to look at fondly even when you are gone.
  • I did the “Elf on the Shelf” for my oldest child in previous years – but 2020 has been so rough that I just haven’t had the energy to bring out the elf. I did put up our reusable Advent calendar where you move around a fabric soldier, but I haven’t bought a chocolate Advent calendar like I usually do.

We don’t really have any Christmas games that we do – certainly, we don’t do anything as exciting as Snap-dragon! One of my friends has a large family, and they split off into pairs, and each pair sings a Christmas song to see which pair will win. I always thought that sounded like fun.

What about you? What are some Christmas traditions and games that you enjoy or that you have heard about and find interesting?

And out of curiosity, what is the worst Christmas present you ever had? My worst Christmas presents turned into some of my best Christmas presents. As a kid, I always wanted toys, but that wasn’t what my grandmother, who was not really someone who liked kids, gave me. She gave me presents such as “Twelve Days of Christmas” silver-plated bells. I thought at the time it was such a lame present. Now, however, I enjoy getting them out every year!

I would love to hear anything Christmas-related from you all! I have a few photographs below of some of our over-the-top Christmas decor, including our Advent calendar as well as my Christmas village and international Santa collection. We probably won’t be having any family over for Christmas, but I have not let that slow down my decorating! In spite of how difficult 2020 has been, I hope all of you are able to feel lifted at least a little bit by the holiday season!


For further reading about Snap-dragon and other Christmas traditions, please feel free to visit these pages:

Article on Christmas Traditions by Shannon Donnelly

Article on Hosting a Regency Christmas Party

Article on Christmas in the Regency by Jo Beverley

Wikipedia – Snap-dragon Article

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May 5, 2021 4:44 PM

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December 27, 2020 4:54 PM

I have never heard of this game and don’t believe I would be brave enough to try it although definitely could help with the chant. Happy holidays!

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
December 17, 2020 1:27 PM

I’m in the Line with the cowards!lol No way! I said in another post that we like to do the Christmas crackers like the Brits!lol And we’re not!lol But they are fun. My sister had the tradition of opening pjs on Christmas Eve.They also have a handmade advent calendar my Aunt Joanne made them with a tree and a little ornament to pin on the tree they are grown now but they still love it! Merry Christmas!

Riana Everly
December 17, 2020 11:50 AM

We set our plum pudding alight with burning brandy, and I *know* it’s not a hot flame, but still, I’m not sticking my fingers anywhere near that. Nope!
We’re just coming to the end of Chanukah, where we light the candles every night and eat oily food. And last night, for no reason whatsoever, I decided to make mince pies. I did a bit of reading this morning, and it seems these have been traditional Christmas-time fare since the Middle Ages. Yummy never goes out of style, it seems.

Bronwen Chisholm
December 17, 2020 10:55 AM

I love the idea of snapdragon, and I might be able to pluck the raisin, but there is no way I would put it in my mouth. Burned fingers don’t bother me, but I hate it when I burn my tongue. lol
When I was little, my aunt would sleepover on Christmas Eve. She slept on the sofa and her job was to send us back to bed without seeing the presents if we got up in the middle of the night. When we woke up in the morning, my older sister would go wake her and they would bring the stockings into the bedroom. We opened them there giving Mom and Dad a few extra minutes of sleep. When we finally went out to the living room, there would be two dirty coffee cups (Santa needed a caffeine boost instead of milk) and a plate with cookie crumbs. She would tell us how she and Santa had discussed our behavior over the past year and she had convinced him we deserved out presents.
My kids and I always open the stockings first in their beds while my husband sleeps a little longer, even though my youngest is now 18.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
December 17, 2020 10:03 AM

If there is a line forming for the cowards… let me in. I could NOT put my hand in that flame let alone put the flaming raisin in my mouth. I’m sure it was fine… I just couldn’t do it. Since my husband’s cancer… we don’t go out for Christmas. We will stay in and just enjoy being together. Being subdued is not so bad. I loved the video, thanks for sharing. Also, your decorations were so cute. Have a blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Mirta Ines Trupp
December 17, 2020 8:43 AM

Merry Christmas!

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
December 17, 2020 10:05 AM

Happy Hanukkah, Mirta. Blessings, my dear, for the season.

Mirta Ines Trupp
December 17, 2020 10:15 AM
Reply to  J. W. Garrett

Thank you and Season’s Greetings to you!

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