For the UK, and a number of other countries across the globe – namely Ireland, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – Christmas crackers are as much a staple part of tradition as the tree or the turkey. It’s difficult to imagine the festive period without the snap of crackers round a table that then bestow upon us the questionably humorous jokes, the colourful paper hats and the little prizes.
So, where does this custom of present-filled, ‘cracking’ cardboard actually come from? To find out, we have to go all the way back to Victorian Britain. Tradition tells that in 1847, London confectioner Tom Smith decided to start adding mottos to his almond bon-bons after being inspired by brightly wrapped versions of the sweet he had seen in France. His initial concept was to wrap the sweets in a coloured paper twist and include a motto or a riddle for his customers to enjoy. These sold well around the festive period, but before long sales of the sweet started to dwindle and Smith found himself having to devise some new-fangled promotional ideas.
The first tactic of his was to capitalise on the idea of sweets as gifts, and so he started to include short love poems and messages in the wrappers of his confectionary. Next up, came the famous noise. Stories suggest that the idea for the ‘bang’ came to Smith one night as he was adding kindling to his fire. It’s said that when Smith added a large log to the flames, he was enticed by the crackles and sparks forming in the fireplace and thought how fun it would be if sweets or toys could make a noise when they opened.
To implement his new idea, Tom Smith started to produce a larger paper package that could incorporate an explosive element. Utilising the friction-activated chemical of silver fulminate, which was discovered by Edward Charles Howard in 1800, Smith had found himself a satisfying bang for his products.
The addition of the bang proved to be an instant success and sales came flooding in. With this rapidly growing popularity, the product was further developed and the bon-bon name was dropped in favour of a new title — The Cosaque. The sweets inside were also replaced with small gifts/presents. The name is believed to have come from the Cossack soldiers, who were notorious for their gun blazing horse riding.
Before long, the onomatopoeic name, ‘cracker’ became commonplace and the product became synonymous with the festive period for its small trinkets and novelty value.
Tom Smith sadly passed away in 1869, and the business was left in the ownership of his three sons, Henry, Tom and Walter. The next generation of the Smith family proceeded to transform the cracker into the modern equivalent of the product we know and love today. Walter Smith, Tom’s youngest, replaced the love verses with more topical notes, which then went on to become jokes and riddles as we are familiar with presently. It was also Walter’s idea to include the now customary paper crown hat, a choice some suggest was inspired by the Twelfth Night celebrations where a King or Queen would be present to oversee the festivities.
So there you go, the tale of the Christmas cracker all the way from sweets and love messages, to the noise-making cardboard tube we know today. As time has gone on, patterned designs have become popular, certain presents have become seemingly indispensible (nail clippers anyone?) and the jokes have inconceivably weathered the test of time. But, would we really have it any other way? After all, it wouldn’t be Christmas without a cracker would it?
CRACKERS IN NUMBERS