Snapdragon: A Festive Children’s Game Played With Flaming Food

Thou art easier swallowed than a flapdragon.
Wm. Shakespeare, Love’s Labor’s Lost

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice is introduced to various fanciful insects by a gnat the size a chicken. To an American child, these creatures appeared to be little more than whimsical creations, but one insect had special connotations for the British:

A snap-dragon-fly

`Look on the branch above your head,’ said the Gnat, `and there you’ll find a snap-dragon-fly. Its body is made of plum-pudding, its wings of holly-leaves, and its head is a raisin burning in brandy.’

`And what does it live on?’

`Frumenty and mince pie,’ the Gnat replied; `and it makes is nest in a Christmas box.’

I’d never really paused over this reference to a “snapdragon fly”, but the most recent episode of Masterpiece Mystery, an adaptation of the Inspector Poirot novel Hallowe’en Party, included an alarming scene of kids playing a party game during a Halloween celebration. Children kept reaching into a flaming bowl, grabbing something, and popping it in their mouths while chanting “snip snap dragon.” You can find the scene (for as long as it stays up on Youtube), at the 7:00 mark here. I hadn’t the faintest idea what they were doing until we looked it up and learned that it’s an old game (no one knows just how old) called snapdragon or flapdragon.

from Poirot: Halowe’en Party (2010)

Here’s how Martin Gardner describes it in The Annotated Alice:

Snapdragon (or flapdragon) is the name of a pastime that delighted Victorian children during the Christmas season. A shallow bowl was filled with brandy, raisins were tossed in, and the brandy set on fire. Players try to snatch the raisins from the flickering blue flames and pop them, still blazing, into their mouths. The burning raisins also were called snapdragons.

The chant that accompanies the game goes like this:

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!

Snapdragon is normally a Christmas tradition, although it’s played at Halloween as well. There’s no clear indication of the game’s origins, but some sources trace it to the ancient Greeks or Druids, which seems rather fanciful. It pops up several times in the works of Shakespeare, where he uses “flapdragon”  and “snapdragon” interchangeably to indicate something that’s easy to swallow. You know: like flaming fruit. That pushes the game back to the 16th century at least. Like so many indoor amusements, it became traditional during the Victorian era, because nothing says “fun for kids” like sticking your hand in a burning bowl of liquor.

I’m annoyed that I even have to add this, but if you try this game at home, please remember that fire is hot and if you’re injured it’s totally your own fault, not mine.

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