(The following is an excerpt from my book Spirits of Christmas: The Dark Side of the Holidays.)
December 25th as the date for Christmas was not an arbitrary choice for the early Christians. Both Yule and Sol Invictus (the festival of the Unconquered Sun) commemorated the Winter Solstice. The symbolic connotations of these holidays coincided with the Christians’ belief that the Son of God had come to the world. Pope Julius I simply co-opted dates that were already significant to pagan Romans and northern Europeans. Of course, this meant that the raucous pagan celebrations, the Saturnalia apparties and the topsy-turvy turnarounds, got brought into early Christmas celebrations too.
The Winter Solstice was also considered to be the spookier of the two solstices. Rather than long hours of daylight and a short night, the Winter Solstice marked the turning of the year with the shortest day and the longest night. (The increased hours of darkness meant, of course, that spooks and monsters and things that go bump in the night had a lot more time to roam the earth during the winter months.) It brought to mind the death of the Sun and the thinning of the veil between worlds.
The Victorian Christmas celebration, then, which already made heavy use of pagan symbols like Yule logs, holly leaves, and even Father Christmas, also embraced the holiday’s nodding acquaintance with the supernatural. This helped to create one of the Victorian era’s most enduring holdiay traditions, the Christmas ghost story.
Even Christmas games of the period held an element of terror. The popular game of Snapdragon involved putting raisins, plums, or almonds in a bowl of brandy, and then setting the brandy on fire. Players tried to snatch a raisin out of the flaming bowl and pop it into their mouth to extinguish it. Another game had the players attempting to bite apples which were tied to one end of a stick — the other end had a lighted candle stuck to it. (The phrase “Don’t try this at home, kids” had not been invented yet.)
Other games smacked of sado-masochism. The game of Hot Cockles involved putting your head in someone’s lap while trying to guess who was hitting you from behind. The kneeler, who was “It”, put their hand behind their back, palm up. The other players took turns smacking the palm in an anonymous low-five. Shoeing The Wild Mare was a similar guessing game, which involved a whack on the foot.
And guess what? If you are a semi-responsible adult, you too can play Snapdragon. All you need for this completely deranged party game is a wide, shallow flame-proof plate, a good handful of raisins and almonds, a match, and some high-test booze, like rum or vodka. This is best played in a darkened room, the better to enjoy the eerie blue flames. Keep a bit of salt around, too. When you toss salt into the fire, the flames flare a brilliant gold for a few moments.
So why does this work? Well, you could say that the Victorians were way more hard-core when it came to their party games … or you could go with boring old science. Alcohol burns at a relatively low temperature. If the flames are blue, rather than yellow, you’re doing it right. A yellow candle flame is about twice as hot as the blue flames of snapdragon. This is because blue flames are due to chemiluminescence, not thermal radiation. Chemiluminescence produces light, but not much heat. (The salt’s nifty trick is also explained by chemistry. The sodium atoms gain a little bit of energy in the fire, then lose that energy. That’s what makes the flames pop and turn that pretty shade of yellow.) And raisins and almonds are not very combustible, and they cool off quickly. They’re just going to sit there on the plate while the alcohol burns off. Also, you’re just snatching the treats from the fire, not holding your fingers over the burning plate.
Be sensible about this, if you want to try it. But if you’re game, here are the directions. (from Gastro Obscura)
- ½ cup raisins
- ½ cup almonds
- ¾ cup, plus ¼ cup of around 50 percent alcohol, such as brandy or rum
- Take a large, flat plate, and sprinkle the raisins and almonds on top, making sure to space them out.
- Pick where you’ll play the game. A dim-to-dark room or outside at night is best for seeing the blue flames. Make sure wherever you set the plate is free of any tablecloth or flammable materials.
- Pour the ¾ cup of alcohol onto the plate. Add more if the bottom of the plate is not thoroughly covered. Then, heat the other ¼ cup in a pot on the stove until it sizzles and steams. (Cohen says this volatilizes the alcohol, increasing the amount of vapor and making it easier to set alight.) Carefully pour the hot liquor into a mug or a bowl, making sure not to burn yourself.
- Gather a large spoon, matches or a lighter, the mug, and the salt. When ready to start playing, pour the liquor into the large spoon and set it alight. Then, carefully tip the flaming liquor onto the plate, letting it light the rest of the alcohol. It may not take right away. Reheat more alcohol and try again if it doesn’t work the first time.
- Once the blue flames are leaping, players can reach for the raisins and almonds. Pinches of salt will make the fire briefly burn yellow and flare. Take care, since the plate will gradually heat up. To refresh the flames, carefully stir the mix with the spoon, or add more alcohol. Eat what you pull from the fire.
If you’ve survived your game of Snapdragon, I think it’s safe to say that you are officially a weirdo. Congrats! You’ll find plenty of company over at Weird Darkness, where Darren Marlar is also serving up spooky Christmas treats. Go check it out! www.weirddarkness.com