On Twelfth night we had a delightful evening, though not so grand as last year...we played at Oranges and Lemons, Hunt the Slipper, Wind the Jack...we had a very pleasant ball till 10, sometimes Mama, sometimes myself acting as the musicians. Fanny Austen to Miss Dorothy Clapman February, 1812
This is a game based around an old English children's song, called 'Oranges and Lemons', about the sounds of church bells in various parts of London.
Various theories have been advanced to account for the rhyme, including theories that it describes public executions and/or that it describes Henry VIII's marital difficulties. Problematically for these theories the last two lines, with their different metre, do not appear in the earlier recorded versions of the rhyme, including the first printed in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book (c. 1744), where the lyrics are:
There is considerable variation in the churches and lines attached to them in versions printed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which makes any overall meaning difficult to establish. The final two lines of the modern version were first collected by James Orchard Halliwell in the 1840s. Oranges and Lemons was the name of a square-four-eight-dance, published in Playford's, Dancing Master in 1665, but it is not clear if this relates to this rhyme.
This is how the traditional version is played:
Two children form an arch with their arms. They determine in secret which of them shall be an 'orange' and which a 'lemon'. Everyone sings the 'Oranges and Lemons' song (see below). The other children in the game take turns to run under the arch until one of them is caught when the arch falls at the end of the song. The captured player is asked privately whether they will be an 'orange' or a 'lemon' and then goes behind the original 'orange' or 'lemon' team leader. The game and singing then starts over again. At the end of the game there is usually 'a tug of war' to test whether the 'oranges' or 'lemons' are stronger.
The game is similar to 'London Bridge is Falling Down'.*