A dragon playing the game, Snap-dragons, 1879, from Robert Chambers' "Book of Days"

 Would you be surprised to learn that drinking games are not just a modern indulgence, but in fact have been practiced for hundreds of years?  My first encounter with “snapdragons” was at a French & Indian event and frankly I thought the participants were nuts.  I had no idea their entertainment was grounded in history.  I still think they’re nuts, but that’s coming from a woman whose drinking days are long over.  Others may find it more appealing; however, I’m sharing the information for historical reference, and not at all suggesting anyone participate. 

Snap-dragon, or flap-dragon, as it was known in its earliest form, may refer to the parlor game, the fruit used when playing the game, or the bowl which contains the fruit. 

To play the game brandy is poured into a wide shallow bowl containing a quantity of raisins, and then the brandy is ignited.  Participants must reach into the flames, retrieve a burning raisin, and pop it into their mouths at which time the flame is extinguished and the raisin eaten and swallowed.

Other fruit was sometimes used but the most commonly mentioned in period accounts is raisins.  The raisins acted like a wick soaking up the brandy and holding the flame. 

Obviously burned fingers, lips, and tongue can and often do occur. 

The ‘flap-dragon’ of Shakespeare is known as ‘snap-dragon’ in the present day, and is usually, though not invariably associated with Christmas.  Brandy is set on fire, and raisins dropped into it, which those unused to the sport are naturally afraid to touch, but they ‘may be safely snatched by a quick motion and put blazing into the mouth, which, being closed, the fire is at once extinguished’.  [1]

Some accounts state the game originated in old England; however, if it did they certainly weren’t the only ones to play it.  Other sources claim the Dutch were adept at playing it as well.

My brother swallows it easier than a Dutchman does flap-dragons.  [2]

In 1789, it was reported that in the inland counties of England the game continued at the breaking up of school for holidays which leads one to wonder what other such shenanigans were indulged in by students.  [3]

Samuel Johnson defined flap-dragon, the game, in his 1755 dictionary which is testimony to the frequency with which it was played.  “A play in which they catch raisins out of burning brandy and extinguish them by closing the mouth and eat them.”  [4]

At this point the reader must be asking to what end someone would want to play such a game.  For the answer we look to Richard Steele’s account.  “The wantonness of the thing is to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves and snatched out the fruit.”  [5] The eerie effect was increased by dimming the lights so that the flickering blue flames from the burning brandy cast a moving light shadow about the room.

There were several variances in the game as evidenced by period accounts.  One version has lit candle-ends floating in the shallow bowl of brandy and the participant is to drink the brandy and extinguish the flame from the candle-end as is done with the raisins in the more popular version.  [6]

Shakespeare referenced this version, “and drinks off candle’s ends for flap-dragons”.  [7]

Chambers wrote that in that version a lighted candle-end was placed into a vessel of cider or ale and participants attempted to drink the contents without suffering a burn from the candle flame. 

The raisins were sometimes replaced with almonds, dried currants, candied fruit, figs, and plums, also probably dried versions of the latter. 

Another version has German roots and in it the derivation of the name is German Schnapps and drache, or dragon, the equivalent of spirit-fire.  [8]

Mary Blain included Snapdragon in a book of Halloween entertainments in 1912.  She suggested placing the burning bowl of brandy in the middle of a table to make accidents less likely.  Pre-20th century games were usually played for forfeits and rewards, Blain’s version of Snapdragon was no different.  In her version the person who secured the most raisins from the flames was predicted to meet his true-love within the year.  [9]

Perhaps the version found in The Book of Days [1879] was one of the more interesting ones.  The participants recited the following verses.

The Story of Snapdragon.

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! [10]

 At least according to Chambers, my Scottish ancestors, though they may have enjoyed their cups, did not practice the custom of Snapdragons. 

 Of all the speculation on how the game originated, Chambers’ theories seem the most likely.

There seems little doubt that in this amusement we retain a trace of the fiery ordeal of the middle ages, and also of the Druidical fire-worship of a still remoter epoch.  A curious reference to it occurs in the quaint old play of Lingua, quoted by Mr. Sandys in his work on Christmas:  ‘Memory.  Oh, I remember this dish well; it was first invented by Pluto to entertain Proserpine withal.  Phantastes.  I think not so, Memory; for when Hercules had killed the flaming dragon of Hesperia, with the apples of that orchard he made this fiery meat; in memory whereof he named it Snap-dragon’

Notes:

 The New England Kitchen Magazine, April 1895.

  1. Bird, Frederick Spencer.  The Land of Dykes and Windmills.  1882.  London.
  2. The Gentleman’s Magazine.  July 1789.
  3. Johnson, Samuel.  Dictionary of the English Language.  1755.  London.
  4. Steele, Richard.  Isaac Bickerstaff.  http://www.blackmask.com/olbooks/bickerstaff.htm.
  5. Walsh, William.  Curiosities of Popular Customs and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances, and Miscellaneous Antiquities.  1898.  Philadelphia.
  6. Shakespeare, William.  Henry IV, Act ii, Sc.4.
  7. Walsh.
  8. Blain, Mary.  Games for Hallow-E’en.  1912.  NY.
  9. Chambers, Robert.  Chambers’ Book of Days.  J. B. Lippincott & Co.  1879.  Philadelphia.
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