‘to pass the parcel’: meaning and origin

MEANING OF THE PHRASE TO PASS THE PARCEL

 

Used of a group of people, the phrase to pass the parcel means to keep passing the initiative or responsibility from one person to another, so that no action is taken.

These are two examples of the phrase in use:

1-: Joan Christabel Jill Knight (born 1923), then Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Edgbaston, declared the following on Tuesday 7th February 1967, during a debate at the House of Commons—source: Hansard:

Normally I would think it my duty to encourage and assist in the burial of such a monstrous affair as the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources. However, the circumstances of these death rites are hardly normal. It is proposed to wind up this Ministry before the Land Commission is properly under way, and the sheer cowardice of this appals me. The Order states that it
“… shall come into operation on 16th February 1967”.
As I understand it, the first appointed day for the Land Commission is 6th April. What a happy coincidence for the Minister. It seems that here is the dishonest bookie absconding before his punters can find him. It is a moonlight flit; a Doctor Savundra. When the victims of the Land Commission wish to complain about any high-handed treatment that may have been meted out to them, to whom will they go for redress? The Order states:
“… certain functions of the Minister of Land and Natural Resources … be transferred to the Secretary of State … the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and … the Minister of Housing and Local Government.”
What a splendid game of Ministerial “pass the parcel” will be played when any hon. Member wishes to complain on behalf of his or her constituents about the treatment meted out by the Land Commission.

2-: From Sad game of piggy in the middle, about physical violence between parents, published in The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 1st February 1976:

One [child] endlessly tried to mediate between the parents. He spotted the trigger points and would plead with his mother not to stir his father’s wrath. Many are used as pawns in the battle. One parent might punish another with threats against the child—one child thus victimised wandered off and was run over. There was one cruel ‘pass-the-parcel game’ when a three-year-old was moved between parents 10 times. He was eventually found alone in a house terrified because of the ‘growling’ of the hot water pipes.

 

ORIGIN OF THE PHRASE TO PASS THE PARCEL

 

The phrase to pass the parcel refers to a party game which originated in Britain and was originally described as follows: a gift wrapped in several layers of paper is passed around a circle of players to the accompaniment of music, the losers in successive rounds being those holding the parcel when the accompanying music stops.

The earliest description of this game that I have found is from The Young Folk. Something to Interest, Instruct, and Amuse the Children, published in the Beeston Gazette and Echo (Beeston, Nottinghamshire, England) of Saturday 13th April 1929:

PASSING THE PARCEL.

Wrap up a small gift in many covers of paper until it becomes a large parcel. Seat the children in a ring while someone goes to the piano. One of the players is handed the parcel, and as soon as the music strikes up he passes it to his next-door neighbour, and so it goes on round the ring until the music stops, when the player then in possession of the parcel drops out of the game.
The music starts again, and the same procedure is gone through until, when only two players are left, the gift becomes the property of the player who was not in possession of it when the music stops.

The game of passing the parcel was also described in “a happy account of the party arranged by the St. Paul’s (32nd Leicesters) Company, to which they invited the Guides of the St. Mary’s Home (13th Leicester) Company”, in The Girl Guides’ Log *, published in the Illustrated Leicester Chronicle (Leicester, Leicestershire, England) Saturday 27th December 1930:

Supper over, games were played which were merry and laughable, especially “passing the parcel.” When played fast it is most exciting. Each one passing the parcel must do so quickly for fear of being the one who is holding it when the music stops. It was won eventually by one of our Guides who happened to be very lucky in games.

* The noun Girl Guide designates a girl aged between about 10 and 16 who is a member of the Guides Association, formerly known as the Girl Guides Association, an organisation of girls corresponding to the Scout Association.
—Cf. in particular origin of ‘Brownie’ (Girl Scout or Girl Guide) and a hypothesis as to the origin of ‘brownie point’.

A similar description of this game occurs in Our Children’s Corner, published in the Burnley Express and Burnley News (Burnley, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 26th November 1938:

PASSING THE PARCEL

This game is always a great success at parties. An object is wrapped up in paper, and the players sit in a circle passing it round while somebody plays the piano. Whenever the piano-player stops playing, the player in possession of the parcel has to drop out, until only one player is left. This player, the winner, has to open the parcel, which can contain either a prize or something likely to cause amusement, such as a kipper.

Likewise, the following is from A Woman’s Point of View: Planning a Party, published in The Londonderry Sentinel (Derry, Derry, Northern Ireland) of Saturday 7th November 1953:

“Passing the Parcel” is played by children standing in a circle and passing a parcel from one to the other, and whoever is holding the parcel when the music stops falls out, the last child remaining receiving the parcel for a prize.

 

VARIANTS OF THE GAME OF PASSING THE PARCEL

 

There have been variants of the game of passing the parcel. These are five:

1-: From The Children’s Corner, by ‘Cousin Lionel’, published in The Banbury Advertiser (Banbury, Oxfordshire, England) of Thursday 20th December 1934:

I expect you are all familiar with the old game of “Passing the parcel,” when a small article is wrapped up in several layers of paper and string and is passed round a circle and every time the music stops the person holding the parcel unwraps some of the paper. But I wonder how many of you know of the one I am going to tell you about now? A very long parcel is handed to one of your guests who is asked to undo the first wrapper. Under the wrapper will be found a little note which might say “Walk round the room with this parcel on your head and then give the parcel to the one you love best.” The parcel is handed on and the game thus continues until a little gift is discovered which bears a slip “You may keep this.”

2-: From The Drogheda Independent (Drogheda, Louth, Ireland) of Saturday 26th December 1953:

PASSING THE PARCEL

Now here is a sitting-down game, enjoyable after rushing about. It needs preparation before the party.
Wrap a small prize up in different layers of paper and string. Between each wrapping put a little note—one directed to a man, the next to a woman.
On the first note to a man you might put: “Give to the girl with the longest eye-lashes,” and when she unwraps her note she might find: “Give to the man with the wolfiest whistle!”
Of course, all the men have to demonstrate their whistles before she decides. One man might have to give his parcel to “The girl who kisses you first!” or the one with the straightest stocking seams.
This goes on until the last one finds, instead of a note, the prize.

3-: From Games and Competitions for Your Children’s Party, published in The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Friday 24th December 1954:

Games of the Musical Chairs type are always popular, and PASSING THE PARCEL is a useful variant for a small room.
Seat all the players except one in a circle. In the centre have a small prize wrapped and tied up with at least a dozen layers of paper and string. When the music starts, the child who is “out” begins to unwrap the parcel: when it stops, she must drop it and run to a seat. The next child “out” continues the unwrapping and this goes on until someone succeeds in removing the last layer and so secures the prize.

4-: From Family Page: Plans for Hallowe’en, published in the Belfast Telegraph (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Saturday 27th October 1956:

After supper try a sit-down game, such as Musical Parcel. Have ready a small present, wrapped in a large number of papers, each tied with string. Someone plays the piano, the children sit round in a circle, and pass the parcel from one to the other.
When the music stops, the child holding the parcel removes one layer of paper and string, no more. He passes it on, and when the music stops again the child holding the parcel removes another layer of paper, and so on till the present is revealed by the winner.

5-: From the Illustrated Chronicle (Leicester, Leicestershire, England) of Friday 8th December 1967:

If Your Family Wants A Change From Crackers
TRY PASSING THE PARCEL

Do you hand round crackers after Christmas Day tea? Our family has always done so (writes V.M.), but in recent years we have been so disappointed with the contents of the crackers that we have felt it a waste of money—and at a time when every penny is important.
So we have decided to adapt an old children’s game—Pass the Parcel—instead of having crackers. It can be played round the tea table in just the same way.
If you have twelve guests you must wrap up a large parcel with 12 gifts inside it, one to each layer of wrapping. As music is played the parcel is passed round the table. When the music stops the player who has the parcel in his hands removes one layer of paper and inside finds a small present. He is then ‘out’ and the remaining guests pass the parcel round until each has a present.

 

EARLY MENTIONS OF THE GAME OF PASSING THE PARCEL

 

The earliest mention of the game of passing the parcel that I have found is from The Devon and Exeter Gazette (Exeter, Devon, England) of Friday 20th February 1925:

The enjoyable social, organised by Miss Pidsley, in connexion with the Girls’ Friendly Society, which took place in the Schoolroom, was largely attended. […] Mr. Pile was the leader in the game of “Passing the Parcel.”

This game was popular among adults too—as mentioned, for example, in one of the accounts of the meetings of Hunts. Women’s Institutes, published in The Peterborough & Hunts Standard (Peterborough, Northamptonshire, England) of Friday 13th March 1925:

The Offords.—A demonstration on eiderdown making by Mrs. Greensted was much appreciated. A competition “Something made from waste,” and the game of “Passing the parcel” contributed to an enjoyable evening.

Likewise, the following is from the account of a meeting and social held by the Southern branch of the Women Liberals’ Association, published in the Coventry Herald (Coventry, Warwickshire, England) of Friday 4th December 1925:

In the competitions, prizes were won as follows: “Passing the Parcel,” won by Mrs. Tiff (Long Itchington); [&c.].

Another mention of adults playing the game of passing the parcel occurs in the following from the Larne Times and Weekly Telegraph (Larne, Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Saturday 21st February 1931:

LARNE LEGION WORK.
WOMEN’S SECTION DOINGS.
MEN’S BRANCH ENTERTAINED.

A “social evening,” organised by the Larne Branch of the Women’s Section, was held in the Legion Hall, on Thursday, 12th February. The guests were the members of the Men’s Branch, and a very pleasant time was spent. Games, dancing, singing, conversation, smoking and tea provided a varied programme, and so many cakes were brought by the hostesses that before the end of the evening those left over were sold for the benefit of the “relief fund” of the section.
[…]
It was a cold and snowy night, but all was gay and warm and jolly in the Legion Hall. The yells and shrieks of laughter called forth by “Passing the parcel,” a variation of the old-favourite game of “Musical chairs” broke the ice and “warmed the cockles” of every heart. One by one, the players in the very large circle were “caught out,” and as the ring grew slowly smaller the excitement increased until the finish, when an astute ex-Serviceman was left the sole survivor, and was awarded the prize which had been provided by Mrs. Stevenson.