Flap Dragons…Snip, Snap, Dragon!

By the title of this post, you’re probably thinking that I’ve finally gone round the bend, that the frenzy of Christmas shopping, wrapping, baking, decorating, and (ugh!) cleaning has finally had its toll. What, for goodness sake, are flap dragons and what do they have to do with Christmas?

Some of you might know flap dragons as snap dragons – and I’m not referring to the common name for the flower, Antirrhinum. Snap dragon (also spelled snap-dragon or snapdragon) was a Christmas Eve food-related game, primarily played in England, popular from the 16th to the 19th century. Flap dragon (flap-dragon, flapdragon) appears to be an older term for the same game.

1858_Keene_Snapdragon“Snapdragon” by Charles Keene
The Illustrated London News, 1858

The rules of snap dragon were simple. In a darkened room, players of all ages gathered around a wide shallow platter of raisins (sometimes called plums) swimming in heated brandy. The action started when the brandy was lit and players, in turn, reached into the blue flames to pluck out the raisins and popped them in their mouths. Winners were considered those who managed to snatch the most burning raisins. Risky: burnt fingers and mouths, not to mention the danger of setting the place on fire with splashes of burning brandy. Not recommended for today’s Christmas Eve celebrations!

Robert Chambers, in his early 19th century encyclopaedic work, The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, recorded a chant that was recited during the proceedings:

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!

It has been suggested that the game was a throwback to pagan Druidical fire-worship or connected to the classical story of Hercules killing the dragon of the Hesperides. The logical choice, however, is that the dragon element had links to the Christian legend of St. George and the Dragon – the flames symbolizing demonic fires, which the valiant conquer by reaching in and liberating a raisin and by the end of the game, the fire has been extinguished, much like St. George defeats his dragon.

mummers“A Party of Mummers”
From The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in
Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History,
Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character

By Robert Chambers (1st edition, 1832)

There is almost certainly a link between the flaming raisin game of snap dragon and the dragon character with its snapping jaws that appears in traditional Christmas mummers plays. These seasonal plays are elaborate masquerades, based loosely on St. George and the Dragon. In addition to the snapping dragon, stock characters include St. George (Hero), a Turkish Knight who is sometimes called “Slasher” (Villain), Father Christmas (Master of Ceremonies) and the Quack Doctor (simply there to “restore” the Hero after battle) – all of which you can see in the illustration above. Notice that the dragon, for some inexplicable reason, carries an umbrella!

And, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn there was a link between all of these fire-related traditions and symbolism behind the flaming of the plum pudding!

I’ll be leaving you all with these illuminating thoughts, wishing you all a Happy Christmas. A busy cooking season is coming up and I will be back in the New Year (or perhaps earlier if time permits and inspiration strikes) with more recipes and ideas!

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14 comments

    • I’m sure that’s one of the reasons it isn’t part of our modern Christmas Eve celebrations! It is very dangerous, particularly involving children in the game. It always amazes me how different Victorian attitudes were, in spite of the fact that the era was the beginning of many of our modern ideas and traditions. Have a Happy Christmas down under!

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  1. Ohhh now I really want to play Snap dragons! The boys will love it, however, I have a feeling I would win!

    Another informative post, thank you and have a very safe and happy Christmas x

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