High Tide

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Victorian Christmas Parlor Games


For much of this century the term Victorian, which literally describes things and events during Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837-1901 have always conjured up images of things prudish, repressed and old-fashioned.

And although such associations have some basis in fact, they do not adequately describe the nature of this complex, paradoxical age, known as a second English Renaissance. Like Elizabethan England, Victorian England saw great expansion of wealth, power, and culture. And more than anything else, what made the Victorians “Victorian” was a sense of social responsibility and propriety.

The town of Cape May is never more Victorian than at Christmas. Lights and garlands decorate intricate gingerbread trim. Christmas trees of all sorts and sizes peek from windows and stand proud and tall on many a porch.

treeThe Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC) housed at the Victorian Emlen Physick Estate offers a living history tour with costumed actors transporting visitors back through time to the 1890s in its “Physick Family Christmas.”

The adventure begins with a trip aboard a heated trolley around Victorian Cape May, lavishly adorned in holiday finery. The trolley tour is followed by a visit to the Emlen Physick Estate, a 1879 house museum built for Dr. Emlen Physick, a descendant of a famous and wealthy Philadelphia family. Visitors are greeted by actors playing members of the Physick household, including Frances Ralston, Dr. Physick’s mother; the lady of the house, and Emilie Parmentier, Dr. Physick’s Aunt.

During the tour, Mrs. Ralston and Miss Parmentier discuss details of the Physick house and provide insight into Victorian Christmas traditions and “backstairs life” at the estate. Interesting tidbits include the role children played in Christmas festivities, the planning of dinner parties, new inventions, eavesdropping on the men and Victorian amusements, for the Victorians loved to play parlor games.

Variations of these have survived the century. Musical chairs dates to Victorian times as well as pin the tail on the donkey. Classic Victorian parlor amusements include games with names like Piggy Squeak, Up Jenkins, Throwing the Smile, Find the Thimble, Choose your Punishment, Shadow Buff and Hunt the Ring.

Try these games at home this Christmas


Sure, it’s fun. But this game also let Victorians get up close and personal.


At least six.


Chairs for all players but one, a blindfold, and one pillow.


To guess the identity of another player by listening to him or her squeal like a pig.


This game works well after dinner, when everyone is still sitting around the table.


At least eight.


Table, chairs, a coin.


To guess which player has the coin.


Two teams sit opposite each other at a table. One team takes a small coin and passes it (or pretends to pass it) under the table. The other team, meanwhile, tries to discern which player has the coin. At any time, the captain of the observing team can call out, “Up Jenkins.” At this point, the members of the coin-passing team must raise their closed fists above the table. The observing captain then says, “Down Jenkins,” and the players slap their hands palms down on the table. The observers get one chance to guess which player has the coin. If they guess right, they get the coin. If they fail, it stays with the other team. Award a point for every successful deception.


When you bring down your palms, hit the table with a loud smack to cover up the sound of the coin.


This raucous game combines the trickery of Simon Says with the frenzy of musical chairs.


Three or more


Chairs for each player except one.


To try to obtain another player’s chair when he or she gets up to change places.


When all the players are seated in chairs in a circle, It (who has no chair) stands in the center and repeats, “Change seats!” as many times as she likes. The players, however, remain seated until she adds the phrase “The King’s come.” At these words, the seated players must change seats–but not with a neighbor to their immediate right or left–while It tries to grab a seat for herself. The odd player out is the new It.


A tricky It will vary the speed of her speech and sometimes say, “The King’s not come,” in an attempt to lure the inattentive and overeager player from his or her seat.


If you really want to crack up a group of people, tell them they are forbidden to smile. Perhaps no one understood this reverse psychology better than the straitlaced Victorians, who probably used this game to bestow smiles upon secret crushes.


At least five and as many as twenty, as long as everyone can see one another.


A place where everyone can sit in a circle.


To refrain from smiling, except during your designated turn. Players who indulge in out-of-turn smiling or — even worse — giggling and laughing are out.


Players sit in a circle, making sure they can see everyone else. One player who is It starts the game by smiling widely, while all the other players are somber. It then uses his hand to wipe the smile off his face and throw it to another player who has to catch the smile with his hand and put it on. Whenever he chooses, this new It can then wipe off the smile to throw to someone else — though he will probably choose to mug wildly at everyone for a few minutes before relinquishing his happy role. Meanwhile, all other players must sit stone-faced. One smirk and they’re out.


We’ve found that the youngest players are the least successful at winning this game (they simply can’t stop themselves from laughing), but they also tend to enjoy it the most.


Very young children love to seek, but they aren’t always the best at finding. This game makes it a group project.


At least three.


A thimble or, in a more seasonal spirit, a small holiday ornament.


To find the thimble or ornament.


While everyone else is out of the room, one player places the object somewhere unexpected but in plain sight. The other players then return to search. Whenever a player sees the object, he sits down where he is–being careful not to give away the object’s location.


To avoid frustrating or embarrassing young players, be sure to have a few rounds when the object is especially easy to see.


In most party games today, players who mess up either are out or become It. That isn’t necessarily how 19th-century parlor games were resolved. Back then, losers performed a forfeit. A sampling:


Stand on a chair and take the pose of any creature or object the group chooses.


Walk a straight line while looking the wrong way through a pair of binoculars.


By acting tired yourself, make at least one member of the group yawn.


Make one member of the group laugh or smile.


Wearing a blindfold, identify the members of the group by touching their faces.


The British love of the theater found an outlet in a number of Victorian games. Charades is one example. This is another.


At least four; the more the better.


A blank wall (or tacked-up sheet) for a screen, a bright light that can cast a somewhat focused beam.


To identify other players by looking only at their shadows.


The person who is It sits on the floor in the middle of the room, facing the blank wall. The light is placed behind It, shining on the wall, and the other lights are turned off. One by one, the other players pass behind It and in front of the light. Looking straight ahead at the shadow on the wall, It tries to call out the identity of the player crossing behind her. Players may disguise their shadows in any way to confuse It. The player whose identity is guessed correctly becomes It.


Don’t let your height give you away. Moving closer or farther away from the light will make you appear taller or shorter.


Even preschoolers can participate in this guessing game, which offers a relaxing sit-down break at the end of the evening.


Four or more.


Chairs in a circle, a ring, and a length of string, ribbon, or yarn.


To guess who is holding the ring.


Players take seats in a circle and hold a string onto which a ring has been threaded. It stands in the middle and closes her eyes for a moment so the ring can be passed to a new location. She then opens her eyes and tries to guess where the ring is, as the players in the circle move their hands along and back and forth over the string, faking passes and returns and sometimes passing the ring. Whoever is caught with the ring in hand becomes It.


When you have the ring, start begging It to choose you. At our house, the fake-out works almost every time.


One of the most prolific writers of the Victorian era was, by no doubt, Charles Dickens. And Ebenezer Scrooge may be his most memorable character — especially at Christmas. MAC celebrates the man and his work with a three-day Dicken’s Extravaganza held annually in early December. Featured are lectures, discussions, live performances and feasts.

MAC will also present an old-fashioned evening of fun and good cheer during its Community Wassail Party on December 13. The Physick House will be decorated for the holidays in true Victorian style and open for visiting.

The Victorian table at Christmas time was laden with goodies. Here is a sample Christmas dinner menu taken from Godey’s Lady’s Book, published in December 1890.

Raw Oysters
Fried smelts …………………………… Sauce Tartare
Potatoes a la Maitre d’ Hotel
Sweetbread Pates ………………………. Peas
Roast Turkey ……………… Cranberry Sauce
Roman Punch
Quail with Truffles …………. Rice Croquettes
Parisian Salad
Crackers and Cheese
Nesselrode Pudding …………. Fancy Cakes
Fruit …………………. Coffee


Have blue-point oysters; serve upon the half shell, the shells being laid upon oyster plates filled with cracked ice; six oysters and a thick slice of lemon being served upon each plate.


Put into a pot three pounds of shin beef, one pound of knuckle of veal, and three quarts of water, and simmer gently. As soon as the scum begins to rise, skim carefully until it quite ceases to appear. Then add salt, two carrots, the same of onions, turnips, and a little celery. Simmer gently four hours, strain, and serve in buillon cups to each guest.


Clean about two dozen smelts, cut off the gills, wash them well in cold water, and then dry them thoroughly. Put in a pinch of salt and pepper in a little milk, into which dip your smelts, and then roll them in cracker dust. Put into a frying pan some lard, in which, when very hot, fry your smelts a light brown. Also fry some parsley, which place around your fish, and serve with sauce tartare.


Put the yolks of two eggs in a bowl with salt, pepper, the juice of a lemon, and one teaspoonful of dry mustard. Stir with a wooden spoon, and add by degrees– in very small quantities, and stirring continuously– a tablespoonful of vinegar; then, a few drops at a time, some good oil, stirring rapidly all the time, until your sauce thicken, and a half a pint of oil has been absorbed. Chop one pickle and a tablespoonful of capers, also chop a green onion and a few taragon leaves, and mix with your sauce.


Wash eight potatoes, and boil them in cold water with a pinch of salt. When thoroughly done, peel them cut them in thin round slices; put them–with three ounces of butter, a pinch of salt, pepper and a nutmeg, the juice of a lemon, and a tablespoonful of chopped parsley–in a saucepan on the fire, nd, when very hot, serve.


Boil four sweetbreads, and let them become cold; then chop them very fine, add about ten mushrooms, also chopped fine. Mix with these a quarter pound of butter, half a pint of milk, a little flour, pepper, salt, and a little grated nutmeg. Put upon the fire, stir until it begins to thicken, then put in puff-paste that has been prepared, and bake until light brown.


Open a can of peas, soak in clear water for half an hour, then put upon the fire in clean water, let them boil up hard, drain well and serve with butter, pepper and salt.


Clean and prepare a medium-sized turkey for roasting. Cut two onions in pieces, and put them in a saucepan with two ounces of butter, and color them slightly. Grate a pound of bread into fine crumbs, add the bread to your onions, the turkey’s heart and liver chopped very fine, quarter of a pound of butter, salt, pepper, a pinch of thyme, and mix all well together. Stuff the turkey with this mixture, sew up the opening through which you have introduced the stuffing, and put it to roast, with a little butter on top and a wineglassful of water; roast an hour and a half; strain your liquor in the pan, pour over your turkey, and serve.


Take one quart of cranberries, pick and wash carefully, put upon the fire with half a teacupful of water, let them stew until thoroughly broken up, then strain and add one pound and a quarter of sugar; put into a mould and turn out when cold.


Put in a saucepan on the fire three-quarters of a pound of sugar with three pints of water, boil ten minutes, then put aside to become cold. Put in a freezer, and when nearly frozen, stir into it rapidly a gill of rum and the juice of four lemons. Serve in small glasses.


Take one cupful of rice, wash and boil it, and let it get thoroughly cold. Beat up with it one egg, a teaspoonful of sugar and the same of melted utter, salt and a little nutmeg. Work this mixture into the rice, stirring until all is well mixed and the lumps worked out. Make, with floured hands, into oblong rolls about three inches in length, and half an inch in diameter. Coat these thickly with flour, and set them in a cold place until needed. Fry a few at a time in hot lard, rolling them over as they begin to brown to preserve their shape. As each is taken from the fire, put into a colander to drain and dry.


Cut in small pieces six cold boiled potatoes, the same quantity of beets, and also of boiled celery–both cold. Mix the yolks of four hard boiled eggs with two tablespoonfuls of anchovy sauce, press through a sieve; add, little by little, four tablespoonfuls of oil, one tablespoonful of mustard, two tablespoonfuls of vinegar, a few taragon leaves chopped fine, two pinches of salt, two of pepper, and the whites of four hard boiled eggs, cut in pieces, mix all well together, and serve.


Place on separate dishes, and serve with the salad.


Remove the shells from two dozen French chestnuts, which put in a saucepan with a little water, then peel off the skin, and put the chestnuts in a saucepan on the fire with a pint of water and one pound of sugar. Boil them ntil very soft, then press them through a sieve; the put them in a saucepan with one pint of cream, in which you mix the yolks of four eggs. Just before boiling put your mixture through a sieve, add an ounce of stoned raisins, an ounce of currants, two sherry glasses of sherry wine, and freeze it like ice-cream. When frozen, cut four candied apricots, four candied green gages, half an ounce of citron in small pieces, three ounces of candied cherries; mix them thoroughly into the pudding, which is put into a mould, a thick piece of paper on top, and the cover securely shut down upon it. Put some cracked ice, mixed with two handfuls of rock salt, into a bowl, in the middle of which put your mould, covering it entirely with ice and salt; let it remain two hours, then turn it out of the mould, first dipping it into warm water.


Put half a pound of almonds in boiling water, remove the skins, then put the almonds in cold water, then put them in the oven to dry. Pound them to a paste, adding the white of an egg; then add a pound and a half of powdered sugar, again pound well, adding the whites of two eggs. Spread on a pan a sheet of white paper, pour the mixture into little rounds somewhat smaller than a fifty cent piece, place them on top of the paper in your pan, about an inch and a half apart. Put them in a gentle oven for twelve minutes, the door of the oven shut; at the end of that time, if they are well colored, remove them from the oven, let them become cold, turn the paper upside down, moisten it with a little water and remove the macaroons.


Arrange grapes, apples, bananas and oranges upon fancy dishes, with gayly colored leaves and ivy branches around them.


Take one quart of boiling water, one even cupful of freshly ground coffee, wet with half a cupful of cold water, white and shell of one egg. Stir into the wet coffee the white and shell, the latter broken up small. Put the mixture into the coffee pot, shake up and down six or seven times hard, to insure thorough incorporation of the ingredients, and pour in the boiling water. Boil steadily twelve minutes, pour in half a cupful of cold water, and remove instantly to the side to settle. Leave it there five minutes; lift and pour off gently the clear coffee. Serve in small cups, and put no sugar in the coffee. Lay, instead, a lump in each saucer, to be used as the drinker likes.