With their dreadful jokes and silly hats, our table decorations still put the snap into Christmas, even after 150 years, says Robert Hume
‘OH, WHAT a luxury! Those bright, foil-wrapped, slender cylinders, which we pulled during our Christmas dinner. There’d be this loud pop and inside would be a toy and a paper hat. We didn’t always have crackers, but when we did, it was a great sign of good times.”
— Bridget Haggerty, who grew up in Ireland during the 1950sWe probably should be congratulating — though some might say blaming — a Mr Hovell from Holborn, London, or an Italian gentleman, Gaudente Sparagnapane, for the Christmas cracker, but it was a Surrey baker, Tom Smith, who cashed in on the invention.The King of Crackers
According to Peter Kimpton (Christmas Crackers, 2016), Smith was born in 1823 in Newington, Surrey, where his father was a grocer. At the age of 11, he was apprenticed to a London baker and confectioner, who taught him how to make cake decorations. Believing that he could do better on his own, he set up business in a terraced house in Clerkenwell, East London.
An enterprising businessman, Smith visited trade fairs at home and abroad to look for new ideas. On a trip to Paris in the mid-1840s he came across the French bonbon — a sugar almond wrapped in pretty coloured tissue paper, and twisted at the ends.
Returning to London, he started to produce bonbons himself. They sold exceptionally well over the festive season, and he increased his staff to seven men and 10 women. When sales dropped after Christmas, Smith decided to fall back on making wedding cake decorations.
In an attempt to boost sales, he began double wrapping his six-inch sweets and placing a motto, or love ditty inside. He even added trinkets and baubles. But all in vain.
One day, while sitting in front of an open fire — or so the story goes — Smith happened to throw on a particularly knotty log. As it began to crackle, pop, and spit, an idea struck him. If only his sweets could be opened with a bang when their wrappers were pulled off.
In 1861, he launched his new, longer, bonbons, containing two toughened strips of paper coated with silver fulminate — a mildly explosive substance that detonated when the strips were ripped apart. Coloured scraps were glued on, and fringes, frills, and fripperies added. Smith called them ‘Bangs of Expectation’.
But in the early days, they were often referred to as Cosaques, apparently because the crack they made was reminiscent of the cracking whips of Russian Cossack horsemen.
Crackers were produced not just for Christmas, but to celebrate ‘Votes for Women’, Charlie Chaplin films, even victory at the Battle of Tel el Kebir. Some of the poorer quality ones caught fire when pulled.
Sadly, Tom Smith put so much into his business ventures that he worked himself into an early grave, dying in 1869 at the age of only 46.
His son Walter later introduced the other important element of the modern cracker— the obligatory tissue paper hat, usually a crown. Soon his company was producing over 100 designs of cracker.
They included ‘Millionaire’s Crackers’ that contained a solid silver box with a piece of jewellery inside; and crackers for bachelors and spinsters that included false teeth and wedding rings. Crackers not only graced the tables of the rich, commented Charles Dickens junior, they also became “the Christmas treat of poor workhouse children”.
Ireland goes crackers
Confectioners and bakers FH Thompson & Son of Cork were advertising Christmas crackers for sale by 1894. In Loughrea, Co Galway, the Krakajack factory once employed well over 100 workers, until competition from Chinese manufacturers led to its closure in 2004.
Not what they used to be!
“Irish crackers are a disgrace”, complained a correspondent to The Southern Star in 1982. The beautifully decorated boxes contain crackers “full of nothing but rubbish”, and “bangers that don’t even bang”.
Better to make your own. For many years children attending Sligo’s Christmas Craft Fair have been set a challenge to put together boxes of six crackers filled with something “that only you know about”.
What a whopper!
The biggest cracker on record was rolled up by parents at Ley Hill School, Chesham, Buckinghamshire, in 2001, and measured 63.1m long and 4m in diameter.
In 2009, a tug of war organised by car manufacturer Honda in Tochigi, Japan, witnessed 1,478 people roll up their sleeves to do battle with another giant cracker.
What does Santa suffer from if he gets stuck in a chimney?
Why does Santa have three gardens?
>> So he can ‘ho ho ho’!
Who is Santa Claus married to?
>> Mary Christmas!
Why are Christmas trees so bad at sewing?
>> They are forever dropping their needles!
Who hides in the bakers at Christmas?
>> A mince spy!
What carol is heard in the desert?
>> O camel ye faithful!
Who delivers presents to cats?
What’s the most popular Christmas wine?
>> “I don’t like Brussels sprouts!”
What happened to the man who stole an Advent calendar?
>> He got 25 days!
What do you call a bunch of chess players bragging about their games in a hotel lobby?
>> Chess nuts boasting in an open foyer.