Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Games

Reading Washington Irving's accounting of late 18th
and early 19th century Christmas celebrations,
I was intrigued by some of the Christmas games he mentioned in this passage:

As we approached the house we heard the sound of music, 
and now and then a burst of laughter from one end of the building. 
This, Bracebridge said, must proceed from the servants' hall, 
where a great deal of revelry was permitted,  
and even encouraged, by the squire throughout the twelve days of Christmas, 
provided everything was done conformably to ancient usage. 
Here were kept up the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles,
 steal the white loaf, bob apple, and snap dragon; the Yule-clog and Christmas candle 
were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white berries hung up, 
to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.*

(Note: a clog is an archaic word meaning piece of wood, sometimes even a tree root. 
Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, cited here)

So I thought I'd see what I could find out about these Christmas games.
Fortunately, I'm not the first person who has had this idea,
so it was relatively easy to find an explanation for each.
Some of these Christmas games are a little strange by today's standards,
but a few were still played when I was a kid.

photo courtesy of

Hoodman Blind is blind man's bluff, where someone is blindfolded 
and then tries to touch the players around him. says this game was played in Henry VIII's court in the 16th century.

Another game is Shoe the Wild Mare. 
According to the blog Montegue Blister's Strange Games  
the game is played by one person sitting astride a beam
and using a hammer to strike the underside of it repeatedly--without falling off. 
The site author says this game dates back to the early 1600s.

Hot cockles? This one is weird, and no doubt has a more sexy version
than the one played during Victorian Christmas celebrations.
the game hot cockles involves one person sitting on the floor;
another person, blindfolded, lays his head on the other's lap.
The first person places an open hand on the blindfolded person's back.
Other players take turns tapping the blindfolded person's back
while he tries to guess who has touched him. takes its information from  the Oxford English Dictionary of Folklore,
which dates this game all the way back to an illustration in a 14th-century manuscript.

According to Maria Lebedko, Far Eastern University,
in the article "Christmas Games, Customs, and Traditions"
Steal the White Loaf involved one person holding a small item behind their back,
facing away from the other players. The "it" person would try to spin around to catch
another player trying to steal the item.
That one sounds kind of fun.

Bob apple is bobbing for apples in a tub of water, 
a game still played in some version in different regions;
Lebedko cites Corinne Ross, author of Christmas in Britain, 1978,
to explain the game Snap-dragon.
Here's how it's played:
Get a large bowl of brandy with raisins in it. Set it on fire.
Players try to grab as many raisins as possible and eat them.
Apparently to play Snap-dragon, one needs the paramedics on stand-by.

So this year, as families gather and the kids need something to do,
try some of these old Christmas games.
Although it might be a good idea to leave out the ones with the hammer
and the bowl of fire.

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