How do you spend time with family and loved ones over the Christmas holiday? Are there games or traditions that you enjoy? Do any of them involve trying not to catch on fire? In the Victorian era, that is exactly what one could anticipate with the playing of a popular Christmas eve parlour game, snapdragon. 

Want to add a bit of flare to your celebrations this year? Here’s how to play, a note on safety, and tips on getting started. 

How to play snapdragon

Victorians LOVED playing with fire, in the most literal of senses. I uncovered in my post on the surprising history of bobbing for apples that one version played in Victorian times involved apples being attached to overhead sticks adorned with lit candles. Part of the skill of the game was trying to bite into one without being splashed in the face with hot wax. 

And of course, many readers will be familiar with the short-lived Victorian custom of using live candles to light the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. I had always been skeptical of the truth of this oft-repeated Victorian trivia, but after volunteering at the Molly Brown House for multiple holiday seasons, I can assure you that it is true. 

Image accompanying the description of snapdragon in The Book of Days.

Snapdragon is yet another holiday tradition loved by fire-friendly Victorians. It involves brandy, a shallow bowl or plater, raisins, and ignition. The Book of Days, first published in 1832 describes the instructions as: 

“A quantity of raisins are deposited in a large dish or bowl (the broader and shallower it is, the better), and brandy or some other spirit is poured over the fruit and ignited. The bystanders now endeavor, by turns, to grasp a raisin, by plunging their hands through the flames; and as this is somewhat of an arduous feat, requiring both courage and rapidity of action, a considerable amount of laughter and merriment is evoked at the expense of the unsuccessful competitors.”

That’s right. People shove their hands into flames, pick up an on-fire raisin, pop it into their mouths, and repeat. Wow. And as you can see by the image below, it was a game enjoyed by the entire family, with parents assisting their little ones in joining in. 

Is it safe? 

I am guessing that like me, many readers will be quite shocked at the seemingly hazard-prone game. I am especially surprised given the long-sleeves worn by most Victorians and the fact that it was as much a children’s game as adults’. 

But before you go grabbing your smelling salts, consider this: apparently lighting brandy on fire creates a low-burning, blue flame that is relatively hard to transfer when exposure is kept to a minimum. Don’t believe me? Check out this reenactment done by one of my favorite websites, AtlasObscua. 

Does it look safe to you?

AtlasObscua interviewed U.S. Forest Service scientist Dr. Jack Cohen who said the fire produced by brandy is more for show factor than anything: 

“The blue flame that makes snapdragon looks so cool, he says, is the result of chemiluminescence, not thermal radiation. Chemiluminescence produces light, but not much heat. If you were to compare snapdragon’s blue flame to a yellow candle flame, he says, the candle is burning twice as hot. After all, brandy is often only around 50 percent alcohol, meaning it won’t burn as hot as something higher-proof. 

As for why it’s possible to snatch raisins from the plate without getting seriously burned, that’s simple, he says: Raisins and almonds don’t conduct heat all that well, and cool off very quickly.”

And if you remain skeptical and think that this is merely present-day history bloggers standing up for defenseless Victorians consider the definition of the game found in an 1876 English dictionary: 

“Snapdragon: Kind of play, in which brandy is set on fire, and raisins throw into it, which those who are unused to the sport are afraid to take out; but which may be safely snatched by a quick motion, and put blazing into the mouth, which being closed, the first is at once extinguished.” 

Creating your own snapdragon game this Christmas Eve

Well, what do you think? If you play snapdragon this Christmas Eve I would love for you to comment below with your email and I will get in touch to hear about your experience. Make sure to take photos!

If you are preparing to start a new tradition of snapdragon consider these tips by blogger Matt of 

  1. Don’t add almonds your first go. Adding almonds makes things harder for two reasons: there are some hard and some squishy items in the dish and makes judging your snatch from the flames harder. Secondly, the almonds do conduct more heat and can be a hotter grab than raisins towards the end of the game. Finally, they can get a burned coating which makes them not as tasty as boozy raisins.
  2. Ensure the tops of the raisins are above the surface of the brandy. Makes them easy to spot and grab because you’re not dipping so deeply into the flaming liquid
  3. 40-50% alcohol Brandy. 50%/100 proof liquid really burned hot at first, but produced a really nice, long game. I wouldn’t go higher than that.
  4. Sweet brandy – Sweeter/smoother brandy made the soaked raisins taste fantastic. Splurging for a sweeter, high quality smooth brandy really paid off.

Matt has detailed instructions for creating the perfect game of snapdragon. Check them out here. 

Regardless of how safe it may be, please keep water nearby for my own peace of mind as I celebrate this week! 

Happy Holidays to all our readers!

More holiday fun:

The TRUTH About Sugar Plums

The history of mistletoe: from naughty Georgians to a Victorian courting custom

A Victorian Christmas party

Please party guests this season with mulled wine