Custom survived: Christmas Crackers

Standard

“Thomas Smith and company have endeavoured by employing special artists to produce designs, the finest modern appliances to interpret their work, and combining Art with Amusement and Fun with Refinement, to raise the degenerate cosaque from its low state of gaudiness and vulgarity to one of elegance and good taste….the mottoes, instead of the usual doggerel, are graceful and epigrammatic, having been specifically written for Tom Smith’s Crackers by well-known authors, among whom may be mentioned the late Tom Hood Esq., Charles H Ross Esq., Editor of Judy, Ernest Warren Esq., Author of Four Flirts, Laughing eyes etc.”

 

No Christmas table feels complete without them but they provide no sustenance and little ornament in a way. The cracker and its strange rituals around them has become a mainstay of the Christmas period. But how did a gunpowder and toy filled device end up being so ubiquitous? Instead

The cracker’s origin can be traced back to the 1840s but it has soon become a staple. It’s a simple idea a cardboard paper tube wrapped in brightly coloured paper and twisted at each end. It is what is inside that makes it special – two strips of gunpowder coated card, a paper crown, a gift and a joke. Often the latter being unfunny and possibly decades old.

That’s a cracker

The tradition thus has developed that at the start of the meal the arms are crossed over with each hand taking a cracker firmly. Each person pulls at the same time, the aim being to be one of the lucky recipients of the end with the hat, gift and joke. As they do so the friction on the paper as they pull apart causing the bang.  How and why this developed is unknown but it is not dissimilar to that done at New Year’s Eve.

It’s all gone crackers

The history of crackers can be traced back to one sweet manufacture called Tom Smith who in London had developed bon bon sweets which he made by a twist of sweet wrappers around. As the sales of these sweets began to drop he looked at novel ways to increase his sales. At first he added love poems and marketed them as gifts men gave to their wives and girlfriends at Christmas this later developed into the corny jokes and mottos. An example of an 1891 motto is:

“The sweet crimson rose with its beautiful hue,

Is not half so deep as my passion for you,

‘Twas wither and fade, and no more will be seen

But whilst my heart lives you will still be its queen,”

Then in 1847 he came across the idea of adding the banger mechanism after being influenced by he had heard the sound of a log crackling in a fire. He continued placing sweets into the bon bons but in time these themselves were abandoned and small items were placed inside. These were described as:

“Grotesque and Artistic Head dresses, Masks, Puzzles, Games, Conundrums, Jewels, Toys, Bric a Brac, Fans, Flowers, Tiny Treasures, Japanese curiosities, Perfumery, Scientific and Musical Toys, and many other surprises.”

This new product he marketed as Cosaque apparently from the erratic dancing of the cossacks or the sound of the horses depending where you read it, but soon as other makers decided to adopt the idea. It is said that as overseas manufacturer copied the original design, Tom decided to develop eight different types and distributed these throughout.  He successfully saw off the competition and his business spread but the name ‘cracker’ had by this time stuck, clearly describing the sound of the pulled cracker. Finally Tom’s son Walter Smith added the paper hats in 1910 and then the jokes in the 1930s.

Now you get virtually anything in a cracker from an Aston Martin Vanquish Coupe, a Cartier Diamond necklace and even a Sunseeker yacht valued at over $3 million but in most some combs, bottle openers and plastic flappy fish!

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