An American friend, now a long-term resident in London, remembers one of her first Christmases here when while walking past a brightly lit house on Christmas day she saw through the window a clearly well-to-do family. They were sitting around the dinner table, all wearing brightly coloured paper crowns. Knowing nothing of the tradition of pulling crackers the scene both amused and mystified her.
So where did the Christmas cracker come from? Let’s go with the romantic version first: the story goes that during a visit to Paris in 1840, Tom Smith, a London confectioner, discovered the bonbon – a sugared almond wrapped in paper. Smith brought these back to London, sometimes hiding a motto or riddle inside the wrapper (like an early fortune cookie). The Brits were predictably unimpressed by something from the other side of the Channel and the idea didn’t take off. One night when a somewhat depressed Smith sat in front of an open fire listening to the snap crackle and pops coming from the burning logs, he had the brainwave to reproduce a similarly crackling sound when his sweets were unwrapped.
In fact, Christmas crackers owe their distinctive ‘crack’ to a compound called silver fulminate. This can be prepared relatively simply by reacting concentrated nitric acid with silver and ethanol. Since its discovery in 1800, its applications have been largely limited to their use in novelty noisemakers – and Christmas crackers. Tom Smith’s brother, H.G. Smith worked in music hall and may have used silver fulminates to create startling sound effects. He might have come up with the idea but there’s another suggestion that Brock’s Fireworks supplied the explosive strips for the crackers.
It’s clear that the story of Tom Smith being inspired by his crackling fire was a marketing device. The size of the paper wrapper had to be increased to incorporate the bang mechanism, and the sweet itself was eventually dropped, to be replaced by a trinket of some sort. The new product was initially marketed as the Cosaque as the noise they made was supposedly reminiscent of Russian Cossack horsemen cracking their whips or firing their guns into the air, but the onomatopoeic ‘cracker’ soon became the commonly used name, as rival varieties came on the market.
Tom Smith’s claim to be the originator of Christmas crackers in Britain is on rather shaky ground. The Italian-born Gaudete Sparagnapane, another London confectioner (and the father of noted actress and women’s suffrage campaigner Maud Sennett) established his company in 1846. This was a year before Smith’s Crackers went on sale. The rival company described itself as ‘the oldest makers of Christmas crackers in the United Kingdom’. James Hovell founded his own company producing crackers around the same time. Whatever the truth, the fact is that Tom Smith had better advertising, and soon saw off his competitors.
The other elements of the modern cracker— like the gifts, paper hats and mottos or jokes —were all introduced in the 1870s by his son Walter after Tom Smith’s death. Aiming to outdo copycat rivals he built up a wide range of ‘themed’ crackers – votes for women, Charlie Chaplin, the 1910 coronation of Edward VII, the arrival of the wireless – all got the cracker treatment.
The Royal Family still has special crackers made for them today! According to The Express some years ago:
Royals will enjoy top-of-the-range treats as they pull the Queen’s favourite luxury crackers from Tom Smith this Christmas Day. Boxes retailing at about £60 for a box of six at Debenhams, family members are treated with similar bespoke crackers made by the brand which has been supplying the Royal Family since the reign of King George V in 1910. And with luxury gifts spilling out including silver keyrings, cufflinks, car chargers, and luggage tags, they will also get to enjoy the traditional gag joke and the infamous paper party crown.The Express 25 December 2017
The paper also revealed exclusively that the Queen was a fan of finding a penny whistle in her Christmas cracker – and reportedly wore her paper party crown every year. Aren’t the British press wonderful? Maybe this year we’ll get an exclusive report on King Charles’s views on crackers.
As I said earlier the inclusion of a paper hat inside the cracker was another of Walter Smith’s innovations. One theory suggests that inspiration for making it a crown may have come from Epiphany cakes common in parts of Europe. Apparently, these are often topped with a paper crown.
The quality of the ‘gift’ rather depends on how much you’re prepared to pay for the box of crackers. In the early days Smith’s produced a range for ‘bachelors and spinsters’ with gifts apparently including false teeth and wedding rings! These days you have to spend a lot to get anything better than throwaway plastic keyrings, mini-bracelets or sewing kits, micro playing cards, simple magic tricks or puzzles of some sort. Those are just a few of the ‘gifts’ I recall from recent Christmases.
Go up-market and the sky’s the limit. Harrods offering of 6 Emerald Christmas Crackers, would set you back £295. No plastic junk here – instead might get one of the following: Fortnum’s 3-minute Tea Timer, champagne stopper, waiter’s friend (corkscrew), Fortnum’s Countess Grey travel tea tin Candle, Fortnum’s Flower Tea infuser or silver-plated sugar tongs. But I suppose these would be the rich person’s equivalent of a cheap heart-shaped keyring and be consigned to the gold-plated rubbish bin.
I’ve no idea what the quality of the jokes or mottoes inside the Harrods crackers might be. But by 1906 the contents of some crackers were bad enough for the Westminster Gazette to describe a particularly poorly written play as being “not up to the standard of cracker poetry”.
You don’t see much poetry now, and the mottoes tend to be of the kind of sentiment which might fit on a fridge magnet. Gritting my teeth here are a couple chosen more or less at random and forgive me if you find them wise and inspiring – I’m just a cynical old curmudgeon: A daughter is just a little girl who grows up to be your best friend and Friendship isn’t a big thing, it’s a million little things.
The jokes are mostly not much better:
How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizzas?
Deep pan, crisp and even
What do you get if you cross Santa with a duck?
A Christmas quacker
Suffice it to say that despite the mottoes and the jokes the Christmas cracker was a great success, and Tom Smith’s company the most succesful. The firm soon moved to larger premises on Finsbury Square, where they remained until the 1950s. You’ll find a memorial water fountain commemorating the company in the square’s south-east corner (below left).
As far as I can tell Christmas crackers are not much of a thing in the USA though a Norman Rockwell illustration (above right) for the Saturday Evening Post in April 1919 shows two children pulling what’s called a ‘party favor’ Looks like a cracker to me. And the girl is blocking one ear which seems to indicate she’s expecting it to make a noise.
You can buy crackers in the USA and reading some of the message boards it’s clear that families with British members have a tradition both at Thanksgiving and Christmas of using crackers. But for the most part they’ll cause the same mystification as they did to our friend.
Can’t resist one more joke which I actually found quite funny:
What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back?