The Christmas cracker is an essential part of the festive celebration and a proper Christmas dinner just wouldn’t feel right without them. A cracker not only decorates the table but also adds a layer of fun and festive spirit to the meal.
We’re going to take a look at the history crackers to find out where they came from originally and how they came to be a standard part of Christmas.
Origins of the Christmas Cracker
It’s widely believed the Christmas cracker, as we know it today, was invented in London sometime in the mid-19th century. The story goes that a London confectioner, by the name of ‘Tom Smith’, was inspired by the very popular french sweet known as a bonbon.
What is a Bonbon and how does it relate to Christmas crackers?
Bonbon means ‘good good’ in French but is commonly used to refer to chocolate sweets with soft centers filled with fondant or buttercream. In the US, the definition is different as it refers to a frozen treat like chocolate-covered ice cream that sometimes comes in a soft tube.
Back in the 18th century, bonbons were simply sugar almond nuts wrapped in some fancy-looking paper. After a trip over the channel to Paris, Tom Smith discovered the bonbon and, as a confectioner, thought he might be able to sell them back home in London. Ultimately, the bonbons didn’t end up selling and this led to Tom having to think outside the box.
The story goes that one cold night, whilst sitting by the fire, Tom was fascinated by the sparks and cracks the fire generated and an idea came into his mind. What if he was to add a small crack to the bonbon when the paper was opened? Would that help to get them noticed and increase sales?
In 1860, Tom made some significant changes that started to shape the early Christmas cracker. He increased the size of the packaging and managed to add a small ”crack’ when the paper was pulled apart with the help of a local fireworks company.
The V & A Musem still has some early Christmas crackers and you can some photos here.
How does a Christmas Cracker Work?
Initially, the Christmas cracker was called a ‘Cosaque’ as the sound it made when it went off resembled that of the Russian horseman known as Cossacks. The ‘crack’ comes from the compound silver fulminate which was invented some 50 years before and was used in other toys and novelties like bangers. The silver fulminate is painted on a strip of card and stuck to an additional card strip which is abrasive on the opposing side, a small crack is let off when the cards are pulled apart under friction. Silver fulminate is made from a small amount of silver, ethanol and nitric acid.
Why are Hats Put Inside Christmas Crackers?
Tom’s ‘crack’ modification stoked a lot of interest and the appeal of his crackers steadily grew across the UK. When Tom died some years later, all three of his sons were working in the business. It’s thought that one of the sons came up with the idea to include a paper hat and some say he was inspired to do so after extensive traveling throughout the world but we don’t know for sure what sparked the idea.
Crackers in Victorian Times
In Victorian times, crackers were often an item of luxury. They would sport intricate designs that took skilled artists days to create and came fully loaded with various luxury gifts. Victorian crackers were also manufactured to appeal to certain groups of the population such as bachelors or spinsters. Entertainment was limited for average folk during these times, there was no TV or Radio, and therefore a lot more spare time to focus on creating thoughtful and meaningful gifts. A beautifully decorated cracker complete with a gift and romantic message was quite common.
The video below gives an interesting window into the past by showing how Crackers were made back in 1910. This was just after the Victorian era but still gives a feel for the amount of effort and manual work that went into them.
Why are the Jokes Always so Terrible in Crackers?
Originally, crackers contained a simple love poem known as a motto, rather than a joke. This was for the men that bought the crackers for their partners. Sometime in the early 1900s, poems were replaced with jokes.
For most of us, the jokes are poor and elicit a moan or a groan. For the smaller Children, they might be quite funny – the equivalent of a dad joke. It turns out there is another reason, jokes are supposed to make people laugh but a terrible joke actually bonds people together. We all know at Christmas how we chuckle at a bad cracker joke and then look at each other with that disapproving face! It brings people together and helps to improve everyone’s mood. I guess it’s one of the small things that make up the magic of the festive season.
Toys and some of the Most Expensive Items
Crackers come suited for all budgets and some of the most expensive in the world have contained luxury gifts many of us could only dream of. The Daily Mail reported back in 2014 that a company put a set of keys to an Astin Martin, a Cartier diamond, and the ownership documents to a Yacht in Christmas crackers that were selling from an online retailer for $4 million each!
I’m sure we’re all disappointed when finding a tiny plastic toy in a cracker. Aside from the impact on the environment, and, let’s face it, most of these cheap toys will end up in the bin, they also present a choking hazard for young children and some pets. it’s worth spending a little bit more if you can so you may just get a slightly worthwhile gift like a sewing kit or nail scissors!
I’m sure Christmas wouldn’t be quite as magical without all the traditions that have evolved over the years. The cracker is certainly one of them that helps to make our festive celebrations memorable each year.