14 Parlor Games to Bring Back This Holiday Season

Even without television, video games, and the internet, our Victorian predecessors found plenty of ways to entertain themselves around the holidays. They just had to get creative, using everything from flaming raisins to pure imagination to pass the time. Here are 15 classic parlor games to break out if you and your loved ones feel like unplugging during the holiday season. 

1. FICTIONARY 

Whether they’re played in the form of board games or mobile apps, word games are incredibly popular. They were also a hit with Victorian audiences, though the options they had back then were severely limited. Instead of pulling up a game on their phone, players would pull out a dictionary. To play Fictionary, one person reads an obscure word from the dictionary while everyone else jots down their made-up definitions. After the person with the dictionary reads the fake definitions out loud along with the real one, players vote on whichever definition they think is true. Fake submissions earn points for each vote they receive and players earn points for guessing the right answer. If no one guesses correctly, whoever is holding the dictionary gets a point. 

2. SQUEAK PIGGY SQUEAK 

Also known as Oink Piggy Oink or Grunt Piggy Grunt, Squeak Piggy Squeak is a spin off Blind Man’s Bluff. One player chosen to be the “farmer” gets blindfolded and sits on a pillow in the center of a circle of “piggies.” After spinning around a few times, the farmer stumbles over to a random piggy and places the pillow on their lap. When he sits down and says “Squeak Piggy Squeak” the piggy must make a squeaking sound: If the farmer can guess who he’s sitting on based on the noise alone the piggy becomes the new farmer. This game hasn’t proven to be as timeless as Blind Man’s Bluff, but we bet it would still make for a successful icebreaker with modern party guests. 

3. THE MINISTER’S CAT 

The Minister’s Cat follows the formula of many classic word games: Players sit around in a circle and take turns describing the minister’s cat with a different adjective. Each adjective must start with a different letter of the alphabet, starting with “A.” For example, the first player might say, “The minister’s cat is an angry cat,” followed next by, “The minister’s cat is a brilliant cat.” Players are eliminated if they repeat an adjective or fail to come up with a new one.

4. THE SCULPTOR 

This game gives players a chance to show off their inner artist. Players stand still while the person chosen to be “the sculptor” walks around positioning everyone into silly poses. Participants aren’t allowed to laugh, move, or smile. If this happens the sculptor becomes a statue and the player who broke character assumes the role. Everyone should get to be the sculptor at least once, since he or she obviously has the most fun of anyone. 

5. CHANGE SEATS! 

And you thought musical chairs could get rowdy. During Change Seats!, players sit in a circle of chairs, while one player stands in the center of the circle. Whoever is “It” picks someone in the circle and asks him or her, “Do you love your neighbor?” If the answer is “No,” the people seated on either side must quickly change seats, before the person in the center can steal one of their chairs. However, the person being questioned may also answer, “Yes, I love my neighbor, except those who … [are wearing red, have blue eyes, etc.].” At that point, everyone who falls into the category must stand up and try to change seats as quickly as they can, while the person in the middle tries to steal one.  

6. ARE YOU THERE, MORIARTY? 

Are You There, Moriarty? is similar to Marco Polo, except instead of playing in a pool, a pair of players lay face-down on the floor about arm’s length apart. Both participants are blindfolded and each is equipped with a rolled-up newspaper. The game begins when the first player calls out “Are you there, Moriarty?” When the second player responds, the caller attempts to bop him over the head with his makeshift weapon. The newspaper swordfight proceeds until both parties feel too silly to continue. 

7. FRUIT BOWL 

Fruit Bowl is like musical chairs with a delicious twist. Game participants are assigned one of a handful of fruit categories: apple, banana, strawberry, etc. Everyone takes a seat while one player is left standing. That player chooses a fruit to call out—if he or she says “apple,” for example, then all the apples have to switch seats while the person who is “It” scrambles to find a seat as well. The last player left standing takes over the job of calling out names. 

8. PASS THE SLIPPER 

If you don’t have a slipper for this game, any light object you trust your party guests to handle will do. One person sits in the middle of the circle with their eyes closed while people around the perimeter pass along an item. The player at the center opens their eyes at random moments and the passing stops. If he or she can’t see who’s holding the “slipper,” he or she must guess where it stopped. The two players switch spots if the guesser succeeds. 

9. CONSEQUENCES 

If you’ve ever made up a story one piece at a time as a group, you know the basic concept of Consequences. This version can lead to even more hilarious, and often horrifying results. The first player kicks things off by drawing a head (whether human, animal, or mythical) on a sheet of paper, then folds it over to cover the creation. After passing it on, the next player draws a torso, the next legs, and so on. Once the sheet has made the rounds, players can unfold it to marvel at whatever monstrosity they created as a team.

10. THE LAUGHING GAME

The rules of the Laughing Game are straightforward. One player begins by saying the word “ha” with a straight face. The second player continues saying “ha ha,” followed by “ha ha ha” and so forth in a circle. The object is to keeping going as long as possible without cracking up. If a player breaks so much as a smile, he’s out of the game. 

11. WINK MURDER 

Nothing spices up a holiday party like a good murder mystery. To play this game, one participant acts as the “murderer,” while another plays the detective whose job it is to identify him or her. The murderer covertly winks at the other players in the circle, causing them to drop dead. Using his or her deductive reasoning skills the detective has three shots to guess which of the players left alive is the murderer. 

12. ELEPHANT’S FOOT UMBRELLA STAND

Elephant’s foot umbrella stands may not be as common as they were in the Victorian Era, but the game named after them is still fun to play. The leader starts the game by saying “I went to the store and bought…” followed by an object. Whatever object the leader names has to fit a secret rule they’ve decided to follow throughout the game. For example, if the rule is that every object must end with the letter “E,” the leader might say “I went to the store and bought an orange.” Players then taking turns guessing the rule by naming objects they think apply. If a player says “I went to the store and bought a boat” the leader would say something like “They’re all out of boats.” But if they said they bought a kite instead, the leader would approve their purchase without sharing why. The game becomes more fun the longer you play, assuming you’re not the last player to catch on. 

13. LOOKABOUT 

The only thing you need to play Lookabout is an object. The host shows the selected item—whether it’s a shoe, a vase, or a pillow—to the party guests and asks them to leave the room. Once it’s hidden, guests are allowed to return and attempt to locate the object. Players take a seat whenever they spot it, and the last person remaining becomes the next hider. 

14. FORFEITS 

A round of Forfeits is a fast way to loosen up your party guests. To start, everyone forfeits an item of value (keys, phone, wallet, etc.). A player selected to be the “auctioneer” stands at the front of the room and presents each item as if it were to sale. Players can get their item back for a price—the auctioneer might tell them to sing a song, share a secret, or do 100 jumping jacks. In the smartphone era the stakes of this Victorian parlor game are even higher. 

15. SNAP-DRAGON 

This game, while certainly an ice-breaker, is probably best left to the Victorians. To play snap-dragon, party guests, typically together for Christmas Eve, would dunk raisins in a bowl of brandy and set the booze on fire. Players would then attempt to pick out the raisins and pop them in their mouths. There’s not really a point to the game other than to avoid getting burnt. Suddenly spending the holidays glued to your phone sounds like the saner option. 

10 Forgotten Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials

A scene from Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976).
A scene from Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976).
Rankin/Bass Productions

If you're prone to picturing your favorite Christmas characters as stop-motion puppets, you can thank Rankin/Bass. The production company founded by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass found success in transforming holiday songs and myths into fully-developed television specials in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Their most popular specials, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, are still staples of holiday programming decades after they first aired.

But not every holiday film that played under the Rankin/Bass banner was an instant success. After adapting the most beloved Christmas stories, the company broadened its definition of holiday material, with varying degrees of success. Some films were forgettable, and others were so strange and unsettling that young viewers forced themselves to forget. Here are some Rankin/Bass specials that may be missing from holiday television marathons this year.

1. Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976)

Scene from Rudolph's Shiny New Year.
Rankin/Bass Productions

After the stressful events of his 1964 Christmas special, Rudolph deserved a vacation. In Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976), the red-nosed reindeer barely has a day to rest before being sent on his next adventure. When Santa Claus and his reindeer return home to the North Pole after delivering presents on Christmas, they learn that Happy the Baby New Year is missing. It’s up to Rudolph to bring him home before midnight on New Year’s Eve or else the calendar will be stuck at December 31. And because it wouldn’t be a Rankin/Bass cartoon without a terrifying villain, a vulture named Eon the Terrible is racing to catch Happy first so he can live forever. Thankfully, Rudolph has a caveman, a Medieval knight, and Benjamin Franklin on his side.

2. The Little Drummer Boy, Book II (1976)

Scene from The Little Drummer Boy, Book II.
Rankin/Bass Productions

The Little Drummer Boy from 1968 ends with the birth of Jesus Christ, a.k.a. the events of Christmas. This meant that Rankin/Bass’s most overtly religious Christmas special wasn’t an obvious choice for a follow-up, but the studio still released one in 1976. The Little Drummer Boy, Book II is inspired by "Silver Bells"—a song whose lyrics have nothing to do with the first Christmas at Bethlehem. In the sequel, the drummer boy Aaron and the wise man Melchior join forces to protect silver bells made for baby Jesus from the Roman soldiers plotting to steal them.

3. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

Scene from Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey.
Rankin/Bass Productions

By the late 1970s, it was apparent that Rankin/Bass was running out of Christmas myths to expand into television specials. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, their 1977 stop motion film, tells the story of an outcast donkey who experiences a series of traumatic events during the Roman Empire. After being bullied by other animals, left for dead by his owner, and suffering the loss of his mother, Nestor becomes a hero by carrying a pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, where she gives birth to Jesus. Needless to say, Nestor, the Long-Eared Donkey didn’t have the same cultural impact as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

4. The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow (1975)

Scene from The First Christmas.
Rankin/Bass Productions

It may have a happy ending, but The First Christmas (1975) is the bleakest movie on this list. An orphaned shepherd named Lucas is taken in by a group of nuns after he’s blinded by lightning. When snow falls during the abbey’s Christmas pageant, Lucas miraculously regains his eyesight and sees snow for the first time. The story swaps Rankin/Bass's signature humor and fantasy for heavy-handed sentimentality, which may be why it didn’t land as well with kids as the company’s other holiday specials. One highlight is a voice performance by Angela Lansbury as the narrator.

5. Jack Frost (1979)

Scene from Jack Frost.
Rankin/Bass Productions

So this film from 1979 is technically a Groundhog Day special, but its connection to winter means it’s usually lumped in with the rest of Rankin/Bass’s Christmas programming. A groundhog named Pardon-Me-Pete (voiced by Buddy Hackett) narrates the story of Jack Frost. After Jack Frost falls in love with a woman on Earth, Father Winter agrees to make him human, with the catch that Jack will turn back into a sprite if he fails to obtain a house, a horse, a bag of gold, and a wife by the first sign of spring. The special is notable for its weird characters, including a villain with a clockwork horse and henchmen. And—spoiler alert!—because Jack doesn’t get the girl at the end, it’s one of the few Rankin/Bass films that doesn’t have a happy ending.

6. Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979)

Scene from Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July.
Rankin/Bass Productions

In 1979, Rankin/Bass gave two of its most iconic Christmas characters—Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—their own movie. The studio was so confident in the product that Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July even had a brief theatrical release overseas. But the film has failed to take the place of the original specials in the public consciousness—maybe because seeing snow snakes terrorize Rudolph and watching an evil wizard transform into a tree were too much for younger viewers to handle.

7. Pinocchio's Christmas (1980)

Scene from Pinocchio's Christmas.
Rankin/Bass Productions

The story of Pinocchio may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Christmas, but that didn’t stop Rankin/Bass from turning the classic Italian fairytale into a holiday special. Pinocchio's Christmas (1980) features many of the same themes and characters as The Adventures of Pinocchio—only this version of the tale centers around the puppet’s first Christmas. Santa Claus even makes a cameo appearance.

8. The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

Scene from The Stingiest Man in Town.
Rankin/Bass Productions

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is one of the most widely adapted stories of all time, so of course it shows up in Rankin/Bass’s filmography. An insect named B.A.H. Humbug narrates this musical retelling from 1978, with Walter Matthau starring as Ebeneezer Scrooge. The Stingiest Man in Town joins Frosty the Snowman as one of the few Rankin/Bass Christmas productions made with traditional 2D animation instead of stop-motion.

9. The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold (1981)

Scene from The Leprechaun's Christmas Gold.
Rankin/Bass Productions

Rankin/Bass’s streak of mashing up Christmas with other holidays reached peak weirdness in 1981. That’s when the studio released The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold—a story that follows a young Irish sailor who helps a clan of leprechauns protect their gold from an evil banshee named Old Mag the Hag. By trying to create a special that could air around Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day, the filmmakers ended up with something that made little sense at any time of year.

10. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)

Scene from The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.
Rankin/Bass Productions

In 1970, Rankin/Bass explored how Kris Kringle became Santa Claus with Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. Fifteen years later, the studio produced a film that provided an alternate origin story for the character, based on L. Frank Baum's 1902 children's book of the same name. This second special wasn’t as well-received as the first. It starts with an antler-sporting sorcerer called the Great Ak finding an abandoned baby in the forest. The child is taken in and raised by wood nymphs, eventually growing up to become a jolly man who delivers toys to children—all while fighting monsters called Awgwas on the side. It ends with a council of mythical beings granting Santa Claus immortality. What was arguably Rankin/Bass’s most unusual Christmas special was also the last to use stop-motion animation.

What Exactly is Christmas Tree Flocking?

iStock.com/Spiderstock
iStock.com/Spiderstock

Of the many curious holiday traditions (figgy pudding? wassailing?), one of the oddest has to be spraying down small trees with a mixture of adhesive and cellulose fibers to satisfy our longing for a white Christmas.

That’s what’s happening when you adorn a tree with artificial snow, otherwise known as flocking. And yet, when decorated and lit up, there’s something beautiful and warmly nostalgic about a well-flocked Christmas tree. Here’s how professionals manufacture this Christmas miracle.  

The History of Flocking

We’ve been trying to get that snowy look on Christmas trees for longer than you might think, dating back to the 1800s using substances like flour or cotton. A 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics recommended varnish, corn starch, and flakes of the silicate mineral mica. 

But tree flocking as we know it really caught on in the late 1950s and 1960s, along with aluminum trees and other glitzy (if not natural-looking) decor of the post-war boom. General Mills marketed Sno-Flok home kits, to be applied using a gun that attached to a vacuum cleaner.

Such home kits are not so popular these days, says Tom Leonard, owner of Peak Seasons, one of the country's largest manufacturers of Christmas tree lots supplies and tree flock. Flocking itself, however, has retained a level of appeal. “Sunbelt states use a lot of it because there’s no snow there,” Leonard tells Mental Floss. “It’s tremendously popular. The West Coast, the South, and the Southeast, the vast majority of it is sold in those zones.”

The Science of Flocking

So what exactly is flocking? At its core, flocking means attaching tiny fibers to a surface to create texture (the process is also used in fashion, home decor, and crafts). The Peak Seasons recipe includes paper pulp as fiber, corn starch as adhesive, and boron as a flame retardant—there’s a safety benefit to flocking.

And the company makes a lot of it. Leonard says they're the largest manufacturer of flock in the United States and Europe. “I don’t want to share [how much], but we sell lots of flock. I mean truckloads and truckloads.”

Based in sunny Riverside, California, Peak Seasons starts with paper and a grinder. “It’s like a big roll of toilet paper and it weighs a ton and you feed it into a machine and it comes out a powder,” Leonard says. The exception is certain bright colors—flock comes in white, black, pink, ice blue, royal blue, red, green, gold, and purple—which require cotton fibers instead of paper to hold the dye. The final product is almost like baby powder, shipped all over the country in large, cement-bag-sized bags.

From there you need to affix the stuff in a nice even coat, which is where flock machines like the Mighty Sno-Blower come in. They’re basically big tanks that hold varying amounts of flock depending on the model, plus a mechanism at the bottom to fluff up the powder. The machine then pumps the powder through a hose, and a gun at the end mixes it with a mist of water.

And that’s how flock is born.

The Art of Flocking

You don’t have to go with a professional flocker, or even use manufactured flock. There are all sorts of DIY recipes that include things like soap flakes or even desiccated coconut flakes. But if you do go pro, you want to be in the hands of someone like Paul Iantosca, who has been flocking trees in the Boston area for 20 years.

Flocking one tree in bright purple (white is still most popular), Iantosca first sprays it down with water. Then, in an area closed off with plastic sheeting, he fires up the blower and blasts the tree evenly with what looks like a purple fog. The stuff gets everywhere. He wears a mask to keep it out of his nose, but some high-volume flockers wear full protective coveralls. 

The tricky part to flocking is that you can’t tell if you got it right until it dries. When it goes on, it’s cold and wet like paste. But as it dries, the Christmas magic kicks in and it puffs up, turning into fluffy white (or, in this case, purple) fuzz firmly affixed to the needles.

There are, of course, pitfalls. Not enough water, and the flocking falls off and makes a huge mess. A flocked tree can’t get wet a second time. “It won’t dry again. It’s disgusting actually,” Iantosca says. Also, when you flock a tree, the color highlights its flaws. A janky tree turns into a weird, uneven shrub.

But if you get it right and string it up with lights, you’ve got a real stunner on your hands. Iantosca’s had flocked trees for his own home for the past 10 years and his kids won’t let him go back.

“When you plug that thing in, it absolutely glows inside," he says. "It’s unbelievable.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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