Poet William Harrison was in a grim mood that winter of 1832, grieving for the old Christmas traditions. "Where is Snap-Dragon? All extinguish'd, vanish'd/Where mystic Mistletoe? Unfairly banish'd/-Where's Blind Man's Buff? . . . old Hunt the Slipper? . . . Where Forfeits paid . . . in cunning Cupid's current coinage, kisses? Despatch'ed to Coventry to modern misses."
The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and there was little room for merrymaking in the average laborer's 60-hour work week. "The genius of the present age requires work and no play," lamented carol-collector William Sandys. There were still celebrations, of course, but the once-glorious 12-day holiday had become a shadow of its former self, and the centuries-old traditions had become a subject for antiquarian curiosity.Harrison need not have worried. If he could, like Scrooge in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," have been spirited away into Christmas future, he would have seen all his beloved traditions restored. Peering ghostlike over the shoulder of a Victorian mama searching Cassell's Family Magazine for party ideas, he would have read "the same sports which were common 150 years ago are enjoyed today; the only difference is that they are carried on in a more refined fashion."
In fact, Cassell's particularly recommended Snapdragon, "played from time immemorial," in which people take turns trying to snatch brandy-soaked raisins from a flaming dish, a feat requiring "nerve and agility" and provoking much laughter.
In the days before TV, VCRs, boom boxes and high-tech games, families made their own fun," says Shirley Cherkasky, public programs coordinator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
"Games come and go," Cherkasky says. "Some are fads, and others seem to last forever," Blindman's Buff is one of the latter. In medieval times, the blindman was "buffeted" or struck. In the version enjoyed by the Victorians, the blindman was supposed to catch a member of the party and identify him or her without looking. Of course, a certain amount of cheating was possible - and expected. As the narrator of "A Christmas Carol," Dickens draws a familiar picture for his readers, as Scrooge eavedrops with the Ghost of Christmas Past on his nephew's party:
"I no more believe Topper was really blind than I believe he had eyes in his boots . . . The way he went after that plump sister in the lace tucker . . . Knocking down the fire-irons, tumbling over the chairs . . . smothering himself among the curtains . . . He wouldn't catch anybody else . . . She often cried out that it wasn't fair; and it really was not. But when at last, he caught her . . . his pretending not to know her; his pretending that it was necessary to touch her headdress . . . and a certain chain about her neck; was vile, monstrous! No doubt she told him her opinion of it, when, another blindman being in office, they were so very confidential together, behind the curtains."
Romance blossomed at this time of year. As the Illustrated London News (1849) put it, "the shyest lover becomes eloquent, and the most coy fair one becomes kind; every heart dilates with good-will, love and tenderness on Christmas evening." If an enterprising lover could not lure the lady - or ladies - of his choice under the "kissing bough" of mistletoe, he simply plucked a sprig and carried it to his intended victim. If that failed, he could still hope for one or two kissing games, like Postman's Knock or Drop the Handkerchief.
Forfeits were an important and virtually inescapable part of the fun. Any number of mistakes during a game - including talking or laughing at the wrong time - demanded a forfeit. You might be told to recite a particular verse; to "kneel to the prettiest, bow to the wittiest and kiss the one you love best;" or anything else your friends might devise, including such impossibilities as "bite an inch off the poker." In the early 18th century, folks "too stubborn to submit" could buy their way out with a coin, but a kiss soon took the place of the silver. Whether or not the kiss was bliss depended on the ages and affections of the players.
Some games, like Musical Chairs, Statues, 20 Questions and Charades, are still played. Others, "too well-known to need a description" in the pages of Cassell's Magazine, now sound exotic: Dumb Crambo; Boz, or the Game of Seven; and I Apprenticed My Son. Some were competitive, with winners and losers; others were simply fun.
A good many boisterous games, like Blindman's Buff, Puss in the Corner and Fox and Geese, come under the heading of "indoor tag." The descriptions dispel any lingering image of staid and proper Victorians seated stiffly in the parlor.
When energies flagged, folks could settle down to pencil-and-paper games or games that taxed the memory. Kim's Game, from the popular novel "Kim," by Rudyard Kipling, involved briefly unveiling a tray full of intriguing items. The one who best remembered the contents of the tray won. The familiar song "The 12 Days of Christmas" started out as a Christmas game. The unlucky player who confused the "pipers piping" with the "lords a-leaping" had to pay a forfeit.
The Victorians believed in cultivating family talents, so home-grown entertainment included music and song, reading and recitations, and other more or less skillful demonstrations.
For folk with dramatic flair, amateur theatricals added to the fun. In Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," the March sisters entertain their friends on Christmas night with an original "operatic tragedy" replete with homemade props and costumes and the triumph of virtuous lovers over a mustachioed villain.
The winter darkness encouraged shadow plays, with the actors performing behind a sheet stretched between a lamp and the audience, creating eerie shadows.
Some Victorian games might be difficult to play nowadays. You need a sizable house for Sardines, a game of hide-and-seek that ends with all but one person crammed into the same hiding place. And some of us would be hard-pressed to find a thimble for Hunt the Thimble. But most of the games will move easily from the parlor to into the family room. As the Smithsonian's Cherkasky says, "One of the wonderful things about games is the way people reinvent them."
Hide a little plastic dinosaur or a Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtle instead of a thimble, and tell the hunters when they are "hot" (close) or "cold." Act out a scene from a TV show; clear away the breakables and indulge in a good old-fashioned game of Blindman's Buff. With a little patience and a lot of laughter, you may find what the reformed Scrooge discovered at his nephew's house on Christmas Day: "Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!"
Set aside the Nintendo for some good, old-fashioned fun
Here are a few Victorian parlor games- and one modern variation to try.
"Consequences" - Form a circle, and give everyone paper and pen. Agree on a simple story line, such as "A boy meets a girl in a certain place; he said this; she said that; he did this; she did that; the consequence was . . . " Everyone writes boys' names on the tops of their papers, folds them to hide the writing and passes them on - and so on, through each step in the story. In the end, all the nonsensical stories are unfolded and read aloud.
"The Minister's Cat" - Gather in a circle. The first person repeats the phrase using an adjective beginning with the letter A: "The minister's cat is an amorous cat." Each player in turn must repeat the phrase with a new adjective, until someone hesitates too long and earns a forfeit or drops out of the game. The company then moves on to the letter B, and so on through the alphabet.
"Dumb Crambo" - Divide the party into two groups. One side chooses a verb, and gives a clue by naming a rhyming word. The other side acts out their guess. If they've guessed wrong, they are hissed. If they are right, they are applauded, and then they give a challenge. If anyone on either side speaks, except during consultation, he or she must pay a forfeit.
"Scandal" - One person writes down an elaborate story - the sillier the better. The author calls someone out of the room and reads it to that person. Then, the person calls out another, and repeats the story as best he or she can. The last one to hear the "scandal" tells it to the whole group, and there is much laughter over the changes.
"O'Grady Says" - This game is a combination of Simon Says and Follow the Leader. The leader commands players "Do this" or "O'Grady says, do this," and performs an action. The game carries the double danger of not waiting for "O'Grady says," or not being able to imitate the leader.
"Pizza" - A modern variation of "Sausages." People take turns asking each other questions. No matter what the question, the answer must be "Pizza." "What do you brush your teeth with?" "Pizza." The first one to laugh pays a forfeit.