In the days before radio, television, video machines, and computers, people entertained one another during the long winter evenings of the CHRISTMAS SEASON. They told stories, danced, sang songs, or played games. In the twentieth century, as people began to rely on ready-made forms of entertainment provided by the mass media, many of these games died out or became children’s pastimes.
LATE MEDIEVAL AND RENAISSANCE ENGLAND
In late medieval and Renaissance ENGLAND people played a wide variety of games at Christmas time. Outdoor amusements included group games and athletic matches in such sports as archery and tilting. One group game, Prisoner’s Base, proved so popular in the time of King Edward III (1312-1377) that players clogged the street leading to Westminster Palace. This congestion caused the king to prohibit the playing of Prisoner’s Base near the palace.
During this era the English also enjoyed a variety of parlor games at Christmas time, including Blind Man’s Bluff, Leap Frog, Loggats (similar to Nine Pins) and Hot Cockles. In Hot Cockles each player in turn is blindfolded. The blindfolded player puts his hands behind his back, palms up. One of the other players hits the hands of the blindfolded player. The blindfolded player must guess which of the other players has hit him. If he does so correctly, he may penalize the player whom he “caught.” Those who preferred a greater mental test might retire to a game of chess, while the physically agile might challenge each other to tennis or skittles.
The English also enjoyed playing cards and gambling at Christmas time, especially with dice. During the reign of the Tudor kings, working people may have found greater pleasure in these games than the well-to-do, since they were prohibited by law from playing games except at Christmas time. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the PURITANS condemned those who celebrated Christmas by playing games and gambling.
Parlor games remained popular Christmas entertainments throughout the nineteenth century. Victorians favored such games as Snapdragon, Forfeits, Hoop and Hide (Hide and Seek), Charades, Blind Man’s Bluff, Queen of Sheba (a variation on Blind Man’s Bluff), and Hunt the Slipper (see also CHRISTMAS IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND).
In Snapdragon players gathered around a bowl of currants (a raisinlike dried fruit) covered with spirits. A lighted match was dropped into the bowl, setting fire to the alcohol. Players challenged one another to grab a flaming currant out of the bowl and pop it into their mouths, thus extinguishing the flames. A bit of light verse describes the fearful delights of this game:
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! [Chambers, 1990,2: 738]
Players heightened the effect of the glowing, blue flames by extinguishing all other lights in the room except that cast by the burning bowl.
In Hunt the Slipper players formed a circle around one person. They held their hands behind their backs and passed a slipper around the outside of the circle. The person in the center of the circle had to guess who was in possession of the slipper at any given moment.
A number of other English Christmas games have now disappeared so completely that only their picturesque names remain behind. Folklorists cannot now say how they were played. These forgotten games include Shoeing the Wild Mare, Steal the White Loaf, Post and Pair, Feed the Dove, Puss-in-the-Corner, and The Parson Has Lost His Cloak. Before a Christmas party broke up for the evening, the sleepy guests might play one last, quaintly named game called Yawning for a Cheshire Cheese. The players sat in a circle and yawned at one another. Whoever produced the longest, most open-mouthed, and loudest yawn won a Cheshire cheese.
Some traditional Christmas games are for children. In many nations Advent CALENDARS amuse children with a kind of counting game in the weeks before Christmas. Children in MEXICO often play games with piñatas at holiday season parties. In IRAN youngsters play egg-tapping games at Christmas time.
Most Christmas games, however, involve adults and younger peo-ple. In a number of different countries sporting matches, games of chance, or fortune-telling games are associated with one or more days of the Christmas season. In past times Swedes used to play games with Christmas GIFTS, which they call JULKLAPP, on December 24. On ST. STEPHEN’S DAY both Swedes and Norwegians used to race horses (see CHRISTMAS IN NORWAY). Ethiopians celebrate Christmas Day by playing ganna, a sport that resembles hockey (see CHRISTMAS IN ETHIOPIA). In the United States, many people enjoy watching FOOTBALL BOWL GAMES on New Year’s Day. In LITHUANIA people entertain themselves on Christmas Eve with fortune-telling games. People in many countries celebrate New Year’s Eve by playing games of chance, especially card games. Colonial Americans and Europeans of past centuries enjoyed card games and a kind of charade involving the KING OF THE BEAN on TWELFTH NIGHT.