Discovering the Christmas traditions of the early 19th century is one of the fun things about writing a Regency Christmas story. While I was looking into ways families would entertain themselves on Christmas Eve, I discovered one game that took me by surprise. It’s called Snapdragon and was a winter parlor game played around Christmas.
Snapdragon was played between the 16th and 19th centuries, first in England and eventually in the United States, as well. In Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language published in 1755, Snapdragon is described as “a play in which they catch raisins out of burning brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them”. This was not a game for the faint of heart and it took a brave person to participate.
To play Snapdragon, you fill a large shallow bowl with brandy and place it in the middle of a table. Then you toss in raisins and light the brandy on fire. The effect is similar to burning brandy over a Christmas pudding. The brandy does not burn at a high enough temperature to turn the raisins to ash, and they almost appear as small wicks. The raisins were called snapdragons, giving the game its name.
The object of Snapdragon is to snatch a raisin out of the flaming bowl and pop it into your mouth. Back then, all the candles in the room would be snuffed out, so you could easily see the blue flame burning in the bowl. If raisins weren’t available, you could use almonds, currants, figs, grapes, or plums. It was believed that the brave soul who took the most snapdragons out of the burning brandy would meet their true love within a year. What really surprised me was that in almost all of the illustrations I found of the game, small children were taking part. Just looking at the illustration below, with the little boy reaching into the bowl, makes me nervous that his sleeve is going to catch on fire.
The game of Snapdragon is mentioned in Old Christmas by Washington Irving, and Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. In my book An Unexpected Countess, both my hero and heroine are very daring people and have a highly competitive relationship. I could just picture Hart and Sarah challenging each other to a game of Snapdragon.
Sarah Forrester is an American diplomat’s daughter who must locate the fabled Sancy Diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent with finding the diamond. Little does he know that the feisty woman he meets on a roof top is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.
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