As early as the 16th century it was customary to play games at Christmas. Late medieval English law allowed servants and commoners to play games at Christmas that were forbidden the rest of the year. These games included tennis, dice, cards, billiard and others.
Christmas games enjoyed in the modern period were blindman's bluff, feed the dove 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." hose 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 17th centuries the Puritans condemned those who celebrated Christmas by playing games and gambling.
In Victorian England parlor games remained popular Christmas entertainments throughout the 19th 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. In Snapdragon players gathered around a bowl of currants 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!
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, Postand 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.
Christmas Games are also played in other Countries. 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 people. 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 Norway, Christmas in). Ethiopians celebrate Christmas Day by playing ganna, a sport that resembles hockey (see Ethiopia, Christmas in). 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.
Some popular Christmas games we enjoy today are Yankee Swap, Elephant Gift Exchange, cookie exchanges, caroling and others. There's no doubt that Christmas party games still play a big part in making the season special and memorable.