Christmas Play

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 circles : or amusement for the new year. A new game designed to entertain a numerous party, featuring a board of concentric circles consisting of Christmas objects and characters, dates from about 1825. There are tokens but no apparent rules, and in the center of the board said objects and characters are “staged”, suggesting a pantomime at home. This is a London-made game, and given the British propensity for pantomines at holiday time, a domestic version makes sense. Just a few decades later, Alfred Crowquil’s Pantomime (As it was, is, and will be…to be played at home) brought pantomimes into the parlor, though accessible illustrations of stock characters.

Christmas Circles VandA

Christmas Pantomines 1849

Pantomimes Harvard

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.

Feast of Reason BA

Feast of Reason 2p

Christmas Games Santa Claus Parker Brothers

Christmas Games Parker Brothers 1896 BGG

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 Game 12 Days

Christmas Crackers V and A

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.


3 responses to “Christmas Play

  • Of Gardens

    Would like to know more about this subject, such as WHY did Christmas develop into a social event in the 19th century?

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    • daseger

      Well, I think first it evolves as an official (church and state) holiday, which seems to take quite a long time. Once that is the case–maybe by the 18th century–commercial and cultural forces start to work. Dickens’ Christmas Carol is very influential, as is the development of the “Compliments of the Season” greetings card and the greeting card industry in general. Games seem to be a by-product to that development. The entire “commercialization of leisure” phenomenon is important in the nineteenth century.

      Like

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