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18th drawing depicting a game of Questions and Commands

The 12 games of Christmas: History's forgotten festive pastimes

A game of "Questions and Commands" depicted by James Gillray, 1788 | Image: Public Domain

Our ancestors loved to have fun at Christmas. There was almost incessant singing, dancing, drinking, eating - and games. Lots of games. The Victorians, for example, loved nothing more than to gather the family around the fireside at Christmas to engage in a fun and challenging parlour game.

Even the Georgians, famous for their strict social rules, let their wigs down at Christmas to play lively and sometimes bawdy games, where losers would often face ‘forfeits’ - that were usually just an excuse to share a socially-sanctioned kiss from a fellow partygoer.

Christmas games were also popular with the Stuarts, Tudors, and medieval Britons.

Some of these Christmas games of yesteryear, such as Charades, are still enjoyed by many households, but a whole gamut of games is long gone. Here we look at 12 forgotten Christmas frolics from history.

1. Snapdragon

One popular Victorian Christmas game was known as Snapdragon. And it’s not at all surprising why it died out – it was too dangerous!

Snapdragon was simple. The host would take a large, wide dish and fill it with fruit, such as plums and raisins. They then poured in enough brandy so that the fruit would float to the top.

The mixture was then set ablaze before the players crowded around the flaming bowl and attempted to quickly fish out pieces of fruit with their bare hands. The fruit might very well be on fire as the brave partygoer stuffed it into their mouth.

Snapdragon was such a staple of Victorian Christmases that a rhyme was written about it:

‘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!’

2. Hoop and Hide

An old Christmas favourite was Hoop and Hide, a variation on Hide and Seek. This game seems to have had quite saucy overtones, as the rules stated that for anyone caught hiding under a bed the ‘dispute ends in kissing’.

3. Questions and Commands

For centuries, a popular game on Christmas Eve was Questions and Commands, a variation on the modern Truth or Dare. It was particularly common in the Stuart period.

Players would take turns to be asked a question or receive a command, and failure to complete the task or answer the question satisfactorily would result in the contestant either being forced to cough up money, or to have their face rubbed in soot!

4. Flapdragon

A popular Christmas game in the west of England, Flapdragon was described in one source as a ‘country cousin’ of Snapdragon.

A lit candle would be placed inside a tankard of ale or cider. The participant then had to drink the booze, at considerable risk of burning their face, or at least singeing their moustache!

5. Nip-Nose

One spirited old Georgian and Victorian Christmas game was Nip-Nose. For this, a group of guests would sit in a circle with other guests sitting in front of them, forming pairs of men and women as much as possible. The guest on the inside would ‘nip’ the other’s nose between their thumb and forefinger.

The aim was for the nipper to make the nippee laugh by asking them daft questions or making silly comments. A smirk, giggle, or chortle on the part of the guest with the clamped nose would result in a forfeit.

6. Fly, Feather, Fly!

Also from the Georgian and Victorian periods, this Christmas parlour game involved a group of guests sitting in a huddle as close together as possible. A ball of cotton wool or a large feather would be cast into the air and each guest would have to blow upwards to keep it aloft. Anyone who failed to do so, with the fluffy object falling onto their face, would incur a forfeit.

7. Hot Cockles

A book of 1801 describes a curious Christmas game popular in the late Georgian and early Victorian age. This devilish diversion, a variation on the more well-known Blind Man’s Buff, was known as Hot Cockles.

The rules of Hot Cockles, a game not for the fainthearted, were simple.

A player would be blindfolded and asked to kneel on the floor. They would then place their head in another player’s lap and clasp their hands behind their backs.

The kneeling player then shouts, ‘hot cockles hot!’, and other players come up and strike his hands from behind. The kneeling player has to then guess the identity of who hit them.

8. Archery

While not a parlour game, archery was loved by the people of England in the 15th century - especially at Christmas.

The Tudors revelled in much singing, plays, dancing, and feasting over the Christmas period, and games were often played. But in 1541 King Henry VIII passed the Unlawful Games Act, banning all sports and games on Christmas Day, except archery.

The king wouldn’t have dreamed of forbidding or clamping down on archery. It was seen as vital for the land’s defence to keep up archery practice among young men. This was followed later by Leaping and Vaulting, which was aimed at keeping them fit.

9. Hunt the Slipper

Christmas games are an old tradition. Even in the Middle Ages households would look forward to a game or two at Christmas. A popular pastime in the medieval period was Hunt the Slipper.

One player was elected the Slipper Soul who held a shoe in their hands and stood in the middle of a circle of other players. They then recited the following rhyme:

‘Cobbler, cobbler,

Mend my shoe!

Make it all anew.

Three stitches will do!’

The Slipper Soul then gave the shoe to someone seated in the circle and shut their eyes. The seated players would pass the shoe between them, behind their backs, and after a short time, the Slipper Soul opened their eyes. If the Slipper Soul correctly guessed who has the slipper, the player with the slipper swapped to become the Slipper Soul.

10. Mould-My-Cockle-Bread

Eminent Stuart writer John Aubrey wrote of a very cheeky contemporary Christmas game played in northern England. This ‘wanton sport’, as he called it, was known as Mould-My-Cockle-Bread.

According to Aubrey, when playing the game, the women would ‘get upon a table-board, and then gather up their knees and their coats with their hands as high as they can, and then they wobble to and fro with their buttocks, as if they were kneading of dough with their arses’.

11. Steal the White Loaf

A popular Christmas game during Britain’s Regency period was called Steal the White Loaf.

In this game, a partygoer was elected to be ‘it’. Standing facing away from the other players, an item called the ‘treasure’ would be placed on the floor behind them.

The object of the game was for the other players to sneak up behind and try to make off with the treasure. If ‘it’ turned around and caught the would-be thief, the creeping party guest would then take their place.

12. Blind Man’s Buff

Blind Man’s Buff, and similar games such as Bee in the Middle, have been played in Christmas homes in Britain for centuries.

In the medieval period, Blind Man’s Buff was a more boisterous, physical game than its Victorian counterpart. A large circle of party guests stood around a player who was wearing a mask in the form of an animal’s head, preventing them from seeing anything. This central player was known as the Blind Man, or Blind Woman.

The Blind Man or Blind Woman was then spun around three times to disorient them. They then had to feel their way around the room. When they happened upon another player, if they could correctly identify that player then that player takes over the role of the mask-wearer.

Versions played in the Victorian era included ‘buffeting’ the Blind Man or Blind Woman. This consisted of gently pushing away or spinning around the Blind Man or Blind Woman to make it harder for them to get a hold of and identify someone.

In the Middle Ages, the game could get quite violent, with the use of hard blows and strikes from willow whips to ‘buffet’ the central player.