|Ive celebrated Twelfth Night for many years but it always seemed to lack a certain snap and sparkle despite all the ginger I put in the gingerbread. Finally I discovered the missing ingredient: the game of snapdragon. Now it is also in great demand as the flaming conclusion to my annual Winter Solstice party.
I first heard about snapdragon (also known as flapdragon) while reading the Annotated Alice where it is described as a Victorian Christmas game. The reference comes from Through the Looking Glass where Alice meets the fanciful Looking-Glass insects. One of them is the Snap-dragon-fly, with a body made of plum-pudding, its wings of holly-leaves and its head a raisin burning in brandy. It lives on frumenty (a traditional Christmas porridge) and mince pie, and nests in a Christmas box.
This is how we play snapdragon at my house:
- Fill a shallow bowl with raisins, (or currants, if you want to make the game more difficult for your guests I suggest raisins for your first attempt). Put in two or three raisins for each guest who you think will participate.
- Warm some brandy in a pan on the stove, then pour it into the bowl, about a half inch deep.
- Place the bowl in the middle of a table or on some other surface which can be protected from drips. We've always done this on a kitchen counter but the floor around gets pretty messy. I wouldn't want to try it over a wood floor or a pretty linen tablecloth.
- Turn off as many lights as possible (for dramatic effect).
- Light the brandy on fire. The brandy will flicker with an eerie blue flame.
- Now try to snatch the raisins out of the burning brandy and pop them into your mouth. Presumably the person who eats the most, wins weve never played this competitively but it would probably be a good way to choose the Twelfth Night King or Queen, since who ever is bold enough to succeed at this game is bound to have pretty interesting ideas for further merriment.
When you first see the flames you will be convinced this cannot be done. Once you've decided to plunge your fingers into the burning brandy, there's the shock of discovering the flames are hot (but not hot enough to burn). If you persevere and snatch out a raisin, your fingers will drip with blue flame as you fling the still-burning raisin into your mouth. Its exciting and wild and daring and noisy just the game to spice up a Twelfth Night party.
This article first appeared in The Beltane Papers, Issue 2, Samhain 1992. The Annotated Alice, written by Lewis Carroll, and updated with an introduction and notes by Martin Gardner, was published by Wings Books in 1960.
Playing Snapdragon at Heron Houses 2000 Lucia party. Photo by Paul Bingman. Used with permission.
The Song of Snapdragon
Here he comes with flaming bowl
Dont he mean to take his toll
Snip Snap Dragon
Take care you dont take too much
Be not greedy in your clutch
Snip Snap Dragon