The origins of the hot potato game are not clear. However, it may go back as far as 1888 when Sidney Addy’s Glossary of Sheffield Words describes a game in which a number of people sit in a row, or in chairs round a parlor.
In this game, a lighted candle is handed to the first person, who says:
Jack’s alive, and likely to live
If he dies in your hand, you’ve a forfeit to give.
The one in whose hand the light expires has to pay the forfeit.
In preparation for the game, a prize (or “gift”) is wrapped in a large number of layers of wrapping paper. Usually, each layer is of a different design so they can be easily distinguished. Smaller prizes or mottos may be placed between some or all other layers of wrapping.
During the game, music is played as the parcel is passed around. Whoever is holding the parcel when the music is stopped removes one layer of wrapping and claims any prize found under that layer.
The stopping and starting of the music is usually done by an adult who is not taking part in the game. While in order for the game to be fair, they should not observe the game, in practice they often do, to ensure that every participant has a turn, that prizes are well distributed and perhaps that the child whose party it is claims the main prize (or to ensure that a guest claims the prize). A fairer alternative is to prepare recordings of short snatches of music.
Variations on the game include allowing participants to remove as many layers of paper as possible (rather than just one) before the music restarts, and including challenges or forfeits on slips of paper in place of mottos.
This game is known to come from traditions in the northern United States.