Monday, 31 December 2012

The Fiery Flames of the Stinging Snapdragon

                            The Puritan Pamphleteer Phillip Stubbes got himself into a right old lather about his neighbours’ festive amusements and let them know what he thought about them in the marvellous madness of his Anatomie of Madness (1583). 
But fpecially in Chriftimas tyme, there is nothing els vfed but cards, dice, tables, mafking, mumming, bowling, & fuch like fooleries.” 
Stubbes had a thing about dice in particular and rattled on about the sinfulness of playing with them ad nauseum, but he didn’t live to see the dies put away for the last time, (here’s a thing that might win you a pint in a pub bet – dice is the singular form, the plural is dies). Dies played a part in the ‘mummerie’ of 1377 I mentioned yesterday, when the then Prince Richard (later Richard II) was entertained by his future subjects, as related by John Stow in his Survey of London (1598),  
“… the said mummers did salute, showing by a pair of dice upon the table their desire to play with the prince, which they so handled that the prince did always win when he cast them. Then the mummers set to the prince three jewels, one after another, which were a bowl of gold, a cup of gold, and a ring of gold, which the prince won at three casts.” 
It’s surprising what you can get away with if you have a couple of loaded dice and a susceptible Prince to hand. 


Another Christmas game was Snapdragon, a marvellous pastime that has gone the way Hot-Cockles, Post and Pair, and the Fool Plough. In the times before Health and Safety and Political Correction Gone Mad, small children were encouraged to play with burning brandy, (mix together fire, alcohol and children - what could possibly go wrong?) in the game of Snapdragon, wherein currants or raisins (or other fruits and nuts, such as plums, figs, almonds etc), are put into a bowl, brandy is poured into the bowl and set alight, and the children each take turns to snatch a blazing fruit from the bowl and pop it into their mouth, thus extinguishing the flames. It is best played in a darkened room, when the blue flame of the burning spirit can be seen to finest advantage. What, I repeat, could possibly go wrong? And yet, this harmless parlour diversion has passed into history. 

Playing Snapdragon

There was a rhyme to be recited whilst the game was being played, 
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, be but bold —

Out he goes, his flames are cold,

Snip ! Snap ! Dragon!”

A Snap-Dragon-Fly

A correspondent to the January 1857 edition of Notes and Queries speculated that the game took its name from the German words Schnapps – a spirit, and Drache – dragon, and went on to mention that the game had also been called flap-dragon and slap-dragon. The same article also adds quotations from Shakespeare, from The Winter’s Tale
But to make an end of the ship: to see how the sea flap-dragoned it,”  
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon,” 
and the second part of Henry IV
And drinks off candles' ends as flap-dragons.” 
This last recalls a variation of the game Snapdragon played by adults, wherein a lighted candle was fixed into a mug of ale or cider and players had to drink from the flagon with burning their faces or setting fire to their hair. What larks! 

Michael Faraday referred to Snapdragon in his first Royal Institution Christmas Lecture The Chemical History of a Candle (1848), suggesting the fruits acted as a wick for the burning spirits, allowing the burning to take place without consuming the wick. 

Michael Faraday - The Chemical History of a Candle

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are one of this country’s great treasures, begun in 1825 and given every year since (apart from a wee blip during 1939-42, due to Corporal Hitler’s Unpleasantness), they are a series of related public lectures on a single topic, given by a top boffin of the day (David Attenborough, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Susan Greenfield, Ian Stewart and Monica Grady spring to mind), and although aimed at children they are easily interesting enough for an adult audience. From 1966, they were televised, first of all on BBC2 and they were an important highpoint of this kid’s Christmas, when a grown-up would tell me really interesting stuff with a few experiments thrown in for good measure, and they are one of the things that first got me interested in science (which was the plan, after all). Things were going along fine until the pencil-squeezers and the bean-counters who, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, got their grubby fingers in the mix and the lectures were moved to, firstly, Channel 4 and then, unbelievably, Channel 5 and More4, until their return in 2010 to the BBC, in a reduced form of three instead of five lectures, now shown on BBC4, that other marvellous national treasure that broadcasts the best television in the world. Let’s hope that is the end of the matter and we can go on enjoying them henceforth.

No comments:

Post a Comment