Games are an integral part of modern day Christmas celebrations. Whether you reach for a board game, play charades, or take a team quiz, after-dinner party games at Christmas are as familiar as the turkey. Would Shakespeare recognise any of our Christmas games? What did Christmas entertainment look like in Early Modern England? Perhaps you could surprise your family with some new (centuries old) ideas for festive games this year.
How about a rousing round of ‘Shoe the Mare’? This vigorous game, intended for children, has been around since at least the early 17th century, and is similar to the playground game ‘It.’ The idea is simple, one player, the mare, is given a small head start, then his companions chase him and try to shoe him.
‘Stoolball’ and ‘Pitching the Bar’ are two more active games which are well suited for outdoors. ‘Stoolball’ is something like cricket or rounders, imagine an upside down milk stool is a wicket. ‘Pitching the Bar’ is like the caber toss you can still see today in the highland games.
If that all sounds a bit energetic you might prefer ‘Hot Cockles’, although that game does involve being slapped across the face, so maybe not. Yes, slapped across the face, we recommend you do not attempt this one. One player is blindfolded and another slaps them, the blindfolded player then has to guess who it was that struck them. If you’d rather something more familiar and slightly less violent then try ‘Hoodman’s Blind’, which is the same as our blind man’s bluff under a different name.
Another one that falls into the do not try this at home pile is ‘Flapdragon’. A bowl of brandy and raisins is set alight and players must try to snatch a flaming treat. Although it is dangerous this game is interesting because Shakespeare referenced it in his plays three times.
He uses its title as a verb to describe a tempestuous sea swallowing a ship in The Winter’s Tale:
‘But to make an
end of the ship, to see how the sea flap-dragone
it: but, first, how the poor souls roared, and the
sea mocked them; and how the poor gentleman roared
and the bear mocked him, both roaring louder than
the sea or weather.’
Costard of Love’s Labour’s Lost sharply says ‘thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon’, and Falstaff has the third mention, in Henry IV, Part 2.
‘Because their legs are both of a bigness, and ‘a
quoits well, and eats conger and fennel, and drinks off
ends for flap-dragons, and rides the wild mare with the boys,
jumps upon join’d-stools, and swears with a good grace, and
his boots very smooth….’ Act 2, scene 4.
Playing at cards was also popular during the festive period, as it is now. In fact, as you can see, many of the games that were popular in the 16th and early 17th centuries still exist today in one form or another. Maybe Shakespeare would recognise our celebrations after all.