Fun and Games: 5 Activities from Christmas Past

So, it’s Christmas. The presents have been opened, dinner has been eaten and you’re looking for something to do that isn’t watching Love, Actually for the 20th time.

Well, why not gather your loved ones together and try one or all of these Olde English Christmas activities?

Like –

1. Telling Ghost Stories

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Preferably ones that produce:

“that strange chill of the blood, that creeping kind of feeling all over you, which is one of the enjoyments of Christmas.”

Christmas: It’s Origins and Associations, by W.F. Dawson, 1902

Halloween isn’t the only holiday where ghosts and goblins rule. As previously written about in this blog, prior to the 20th century the 12 days of Christmas and Christmas Eve were viewed as particularly supernatural time of year. And in Victorian Britain, telling scary stories stories was a popular Yuletide activity.

The most obvious Christmas ghost story enjoyed was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but poems like Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and The Haunted House by Thomas Hood were also popular.

2. Snapdragon

Photo by Guido Jansen on Unsplash

If you need to crank up the heat this Christmas (and you don’t mind suffering second degree burns) you could try playing Snapdragon with your nearest and dearest.

To play, fill a bowl full of raisins and almonds, douse them in brandy and set them alight.

Players must then try to pluck the blazing fruit from the dish with their bare hands and toss them in their mouths.

Apparently, the fun of this game came from watching family members repeatedly burn themselves while trying to consume a flaming raisin.

With his blue and lapping tongue
Many of you will be stung,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

image and poem extract taken from: Christmas: It’s Origins and Associations, by W.F. Dawson, 1902

3. Blindman’s Buff

source: Christmas: It’s Origins and Associations, by W.F. Dawson, 1902

Also known as Blindman’s Bluff but originally called “Hoodman Blind”, this game was often played in England at Christmas. And not just by children.

If you’re unfamiliar with the activity, it’s basically “sightless tag”.

One partygoer is blindfolded, and then the assembled guests run hither and thither in an attempt to avoid being caught by the “blindman”. Those who were caught, would become “it”.

Apparently, games of Blindman’s Buff could become quite lively and probably helped guests to stay warm, burn calories and forget about the singed fingertips they acquired during Snapdragon.

4. Hot Cockles

source: Alamy.com

Don’t let the name fool you there’s no actual fire involved in this game, just the fiery sting of a smacked bottom (or hand, if you’re playing the more “sophisticated” version of the game).

Now I may have this one wrong, (and historians and scholars are welcome to correct me) but from what I’ve read and seen in artist’s depictions (such as the one above), a player places their face into a guest’s lap, points their bottom upwards and waits to receive a good whack.

Once the bottom has been smacked, the player must then identify which of the assembled guests delivered the cheeky blow.

Perhaps because very few people like being spanked in public, other versions of the game allowed players to present their hand to be struck instead of their derriere. This version of the game is depicted below:

FRAGONARD, Jean-Honoré
A Game of Hot Cockles
1775-80
Oil on canvas, 116 x 92 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

5. Mumming

Photo by Steven Weeks on Unsplash

Dating back to the middle ages, mumming (or mummering) was the ritual of “masking up” (diguising yourself) and going from house to house to entertain tenants with plays, skits and dances. Christmas mumming could be found throughout Europe and performances varied depending on the region.

In England, mummers often depicted the life of St. George, but staged sword fights were also popular.

Mummers, also known as “geese dancers”, “guisers” or “tipteerers” were active throughout the year, appearing at most annual festivals, including Christmas. Participants could dress as animals, historical figures or members of the opposite sex. If you couldn’t afford a mask or costume you could paint your face or cover it in soot.

Although they were uninvited, English mummers could turn up on your doorstep and “enter your house as of right.” Then, when their performance was over they requested payment.

Cash was prefered.

I mean, isn’t it always?
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So this year, if you’ve had it with Christmas movies and caroling, why not throw on a disguise, grab a sword, head over to your neighbour’s house and demand to be let in?

It’s bound to be a Christmas no one will forget.

Photo by Leeloo Thefirst on Pexels.com

RESOURCES AND FURTHER READING:

Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, by Clement A. Miles, 1902,

Christmas: It’s Origins and Associations, by W.F. Dawson, 1902

https://www.wga.hu/html_m/f/fragonar/father/2/072game.html

http://web.abo.fi/karen/special/steatern/arkiv/2005/material/mummers_play/mummings.html#:~:text=A%20mumming%20is%20a%20type,a%20French%20word%20meaning%20masked.

3 comments

  1. “Apparently, the fun of this game came from watching family members repeatedly burn themselves while trying to consume a flaming raisin.”

    Excuse me while I roll on the floor laughing. What a fun post! This was great to read. Love some of these old games!

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