Christmas fun: Victorian parlour games

Revive the fun-loving spirit of Christmas past with a bit of good old-fashioned contortionism, hand-to-hand combat and sexual intrigue

This Christmas the watchword is "green"; responsible revellers everywhere are on the lookout for carbon-neutral Christmas pastimes. Nobody knew how to have electricity-free fun like the Victorians, the inventors of the Christmas holidays, so why not try a few of these bracing, multi-generational and, often, downright dangerous parlour games of yesteryear?

Snapdragon

For about 300 years until the beginning of the 20th century, no English Christmas Eve celebration would have been complete without a hearty game of snapdragon. It's simple enough: you pile raisins in a bowl of brandy, turn out the lights, set fire to the brandy, and then try to snatch the goodies out of the bowl and eat them while they're still alight. If you manage to do this without setting fire to your fingers, your tongue or your parlour, you've won.

So, if you've ever wondered about the snap-dragon-fly in Alice Through the Looking Glass (with its body of plum pudding, its wings of holly leaves, and its head a raisin burning in brandy), you need wonder no more.

Are you there, Moriarty?

If family relations have become slightly fraught over Christmas, you may be looking for a game involving rather more explicit violence, in which case you've come to the right paragraph: Moriarty is the game you're after.

Two players are blindfolded and lie face down, head-to-head, holding each other by the left hand. Their seconds hand them each a rolled-up newspaper. (Just between us, broadsheet papers are better for this game. Don't buy one specially, though.) The first player calls out "Are you there, Moriarty? ", his opponent replies "Yes", and the first player smacks him on the head as hard as he can with his rolled-up newspaper, using the voice as a clue to where his head is. Then the victim takes his turn. At a superficial level, the art of this game appears to be in the bluff and double-bluff involved in twisting your arm one way but moving the other, saying "Yes" and then moving before you can be hit, and so on. In practice, though, the game normally proceeds quite quickly to a deeper level in which one of the players secretly removes his blindfold and just hits his opponent repeatedly over the head. Proper etiquette in this situation dictates that none of the spectators should warn the victim as to what's going on.

Cockfighting

For a Moriarty variant with less violence but more machismo, try cockfighting. You and your opponent lie on your backs, side-by-side, with your feet pointing in opposite directions, and link your right arms at the elbow (ie, your heads will be next to each other's waists). Then you both lift your right legs vertically and hook them around each other. The winner is the one who can pull his opponent's heels over his/her head in a somersault.

The trick here is to entice your opponent into overreaching themself on the "hook", and then to use their own momentum to propel them over. This is a particularly good game to play after a heavy lunch, both because you can do it lying down and because it unequivocally favours the stouter of the two players.

Reverend Crawley's game

This is a really excellent game in which nobody gets hit but everybody wins. It provides gentle exercise, enforced intimacy, and ultimately has the effect of a conjuring trick, so there really isn't much to be said against it and everybody should give it a go - trust us.

You need at least seven or eight players, preferably more. You all stand in a circle and link hands - but not with the people on either side of you, and not both hands with the same person. This has the effect of turning the group into a huge human knot, and your joint task is to untie it. You work together to step over each other, crawl under people's arms, climb through gaps, and so on - all without letting go of the hands you're holding.

The outcome is truly bizarre and counter-intuitive: the knot virtually always unties into a single ring of people holding hands in a circle (or, occasionally, two interlinked rings).

Shadow buff

Simple fun, this: hang a sheet across the room, put a single candle on a table behind it, and turn out the lights. One person sits in front of the sheet while everyone else passes between the sheet and the candle, and the person in front has to guess who each of them is. The shadows can disguise themselves in any way they want to, but if they are correctly identified they have to pay a forfeit.

Prussian exercises

This game had the admirable dual purpose of poking fun at the Germans and making everyone fall over in a heap, which suggests that it should be as much fun today as it ever was. The players stood in a line like soldiers on parade and were given various commands by the "Captain" (" Fold arms!", "Tweak noses!", "Do your Gladstone impression!" etc), which they performed in unison. When they'd had as much fun as they could cope with they were given the commands "Ground left knee!" (kneel on one knee) and then "Present arms!" (hold your arms out in front of you) after which the soldier at the right end of the line, who was an accomplice of the Captain, pushed the soldier next to him over - and hopefully the whole line collapsed like a row of dominoes.

A word about forfeits

Many of these games involved the loser paying a forfeit. Victorian forfeits could be quite elaborate, but were often little more than a thinly disguised subterfuge for copping a socially mandated kiss off somebody you weren't married to. The usual practice was to accumulate the forfeits owed until the end of the evening and then "cry the forfeits", whereupon they would all be redeemed together. Here are a few Victorian forfeits, culled from Cassell's Household Guide to Every Department of Practical Life.

Forfeits for gentlemen

* To kiss every lady "in the Spanish Fashion". As Cassell's notes: "The person to whom this forfeit is assigned usually imagines that an agreeable task is before him" - but he's soon disabused; one of the ladies accompanies him round the room and does all the kissing on his behalf, then wipes his mouth with a handkerchief.

* To make a Grecian statue. The victim stands on a chair and has his limbs put into whatever pose the company chooses.

* To say half-a-dozen flattering things to a lady without using the letter L.

* To play the learned pig. The victim imitates a clever pig which can answer questions like "Who's the biggest flirt in the room?" by going up to one of the guests and grunting at them.

* To go round the room blindfolded and kiss all the ladies. The trick being that when the blindfold goes on, all the ladies switch places with each other and with the gentlemen.

* To choose one of three signs. The gentleman faces the wall while one of the ladies makes three signs behind his back: a kiss, a pinch, and a box on the ear, in any order. He has to choose first, second or third, and receives whichever one he chose.

Forfeits for ladies

* To stand in the middle of the room and spell "opportunity". Then, if one of the gentlemen can catch her before she manages to sit down "he may avail himself of the 'opportunity' offered, under the mistletoe".

* To answer "yes" or "no" to three questions. The lady leaves the room while everyone agrees on what questions to ask. According to Cassell's: "Ladies of experience say the safe answer is always 'no'; but this hint must be reserved to readers of these papers."

* To kiss a gentleman "rabbit fashion". The lady is allowed her choice of gentleman, then they each put one end of a piece of cotton in their respective mouths and nibble towards each other till they're kissing.

* To kiss the gentleman you love best in the company, without anyone knowing it. The idea being that the only way to do this is to kiss all of them.

* To kiss each corner of the room. Which sounds innocuous enough - except that four gentlemen immediately station themselves in the corners, lips puckered and whiskers a-quiver.

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