Christmas Crackers

Christmas Crackers

In Great Britain Christmas crackers are a common holiday party favor. Wrapped in colored paper, these cardboard tubes contain a fortune (or motto) and a small toy. When pulled from both ends, they burst open with a popping noise.

Christmas crackers present us with one of the few Christmas customs whose origins are definitely known. They were invented in the mid-nineteenth century by an English confectioner named Thomas Smith. Smith visited Paris in 1844. He brought home with him the idea of marketing a bonbon wrapped in a bit of tissue paper, similar to those he had seen in Paris shop windows. Sales were slow, especially after Christmas, so Smith came up with the idea of adding a motto. This helped, but more was needed. Soon he hit upon a way of getting the crackers to open with a small bang. Smith marketed his novelty as a Christmas amusement in 1846, hoping to cash in on the growing Christmas market (see also Victorian England, Christmas in). Smith's Christmas cracker caught on with the public, eventually giving rise to a new British Christmas tradition.

The name as well as the contents of Smith's invention have changed over time. In the early days Smith called his novelty a "cosaque" rather than a cracker. This name probably refers to the Cossacks, a people from southern Russia who were feared soldiers and famed horseback riders. According to nineteenth-century advertisements, Smith's crackers contained such things as paper hats, night-caps, masks, puzzles, games, toys, hair dye, flowers, perfume, Japanese trinkets, tiny harps, and toys of a scientific bent. Today's crackers typically hold paper hats, whistles, and a variety of inexpensive plastic toys. Nineteenth-century cracker mottoes hoped to amuse or inspire the recipient with a few lines of light verse. Since those times mottoes have shifted towards jokes, riddles, and puns.

Tom Smith's cracker company has survived till this day, although it now faces competition from several other firms. In spite of this competition, Smith's company turns out about 38 million crackers each year. The firm sells most of these in the United Kingdom, but ships about fifteen percent abroad. In an effort to boost off-season sales, the company has introduced new designs suitable for other holidays, including Halloween and the Fourth of July, and such special occasions as weddings and children's birthday parties.

Further Reading

Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978. Sansom, William. A Book of Christmas. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968. Street, Ed. "Tom Smith's Novelty - The English Christmas Cracker." TheWorld and I 11, 12 (December 1, 1996): 190-95.
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