The invention of Christmas as not only a religious and social holiday but also as family time over the course of the nineteenth century meant that people had to find things to do while at home for stretches of time. Imagine what we now call “the Holidays” spent in the company of our extended families with no telephones, televisions, or computers and you can can quickly grasp the need for some form of distraction, occupation, or Christmas “merriment”: songs, tales, but above all, games. The Victorians were great entertainers and also avid consumers of board games, first for educational and later for entertainment purposes, so it only makes sense that they would develop parlor games which were specifically focused on their favorite holiday. The first Christmas game I found actually pre-dated Victoria herself:
Christmas pantomimes never really caught on on this side of the Atlantic, and I don’t think a Christmas dinner party game called The Feast of Reason. A Christmas Dinner Party Puzzle did either, as I have been able to locate only two copies, one in the collection of the Boston Athenaeum and one which sold to a private buyer at auction a few years ago. Both were published by the Salem firm C. M Whipple and A.A. Smith in 1865, after a charming drawing by the artist William Emmerton (featuring marginalia that looks like a medieval manuscript) and lithography by the J.H. Bufford firm. There are multiple riddles for each course, and I have yet to figure out even one. Later in the century, another Salem producer, Parker Brothers, manufactured several games for Christmas time, including The Santa Claus Game and The Night before Christmas.
As the Parker Brothers’ games illustrate, by the twentieth century Christmas games seem to have evolved into children’s games primarily, rather than family or parlor games. There are a few exceptions, but there seems to be a holiday segregation of sorts, with the children preoccupied with gaming and gifts and the adults occupied elsewhere (purchasing, preparing, drinking?). At least everyone comes back together for the feast, followed by a little Crackers merriment, always over in Britain and increasingly over here.
Christmas games: Christmas Circles, c. 1825, The Twelve Days of Christmas, c. 1950, and Batger’s Crackers, 1920s-30s, Victoria & Albert Museum Collection; Alfred Crowquil’s Pantomime, Harvard University; The Feast of Reason, c. 1865, Boston Athenaeum, Parker Brothers’ Santa Claus games, 1890s, National Museum of Play, ©The Strong.