Snap-dragon (also known as Flap-dragon, Snapdragon, or Flapdragon) was a parlour game popular from about the 16th to 19th centuries. It was played during the winter, particularly on Christmas Eve. Brandy was heated and placed in a wide shallow bowl; raisins were placed in the brandy which was then set alight. Typically, lights were extinguished or dimmed to increase the eerie effect of the blue flames playing across the liquor. The aim of the game was to pluck the raisins out of the burning brandy and eat them, at the risk of being burnt. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755) describes it as "a play in which they catch raisins out of burning brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them". According to an eighteenth-century article in Richard Steele's Tatler magazine, "the wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves, and snatched out the fruit." Snap-dragon was played in England and the United States, but there is insufficient evidence of the practice in Scotland, or other countries.
There were several other traditions surrounding the game of Snap-dragon. Mary F. Blain describes the belief that the person who snatches the most treats out of the brandy will meet their true love within a year. In another tradition, one of the raisins contains a gold button and becomes 'the lucky raisin'. The person who fishes the raisin out can claim a reward or boon of their choosing. In the short story Master Sandy's Snapdragon by Elbridge S. Brooks, Snap-dragon is played in the royal household of James I of England. Young Prince Charles (later Charles I of England) catches the lucky raisin and, after much prevarication, asks for the freedom of Walter Raleigh.
and Henry IV, Part 2 (1598):
John Dryden refers to them in his play The Duke of Guise (1683):
Snap-dragons were also described in Isaac D'Israeli's The Curiosities of Literature (1791–1823). However, at this time it was not a parlour game but a drinking game, with the snap-dragons being "small combustible bodies fired at one end and floated in a glass of liquor, which an experienced toper swallowed unharmed, while yet blazing." Sandys cites a related variant of Snap-dragon where a lit candle end is placed in a cup of ale or cider; the aim is to quaff the liquor without singeing one's face.
The first reference to Snap-dragon explicitly as a parlour game is in Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811): "Christmas gambol: raisins and almonds being put into a bowl of brandy, and the candles extinguished, the spirit is set on fire, and the company scramble for the raisins."
By the mid-19th century Snap-dragon was firmly entrenched as a Christmas parlour game, and it is in this sense that it is referenced in 1836, in Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers and in 1861, in Anthony Trollope's novel Orley Farm. Lewis Carroll, in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) describes "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."
Agatha Christie's book Halloween Party describes a children's party (during which a child's murder causes Hercule Poirot to be brought in to solve the case) at which Snap-dragon is played at the end of the evening.
In his essay "Christmas", Alexander Smith recalls playing snapdragon on Christmases past. Read the essay at Quotidiana.org.
Michael Faraday, in his essay The Chemical History of a Candle (1860), suggested that the raisins in Snap-dragon act like miniature wicks. The concept is similar to that of burning brandy on top of Christmas puddings – the brandy is burning, but is not burning at a high enough temperature to consume the raisins. Nevertheless, children often burnt their hands or mouths playing this game, which may have led to the practice mostly dying out in the early 20th century.