Throughout Britain, enjoying the holiday meal on Christmas Day would not be complete without a cherished item… the Christmas cracker. Wrapped in festively colored paper and twisted at both ends, the Christmas cracker is a cardboard paper tube containing two strips of chemical paper that react with friction and make a bang/pop sound when pulled apart.
Traditionally, each person holds their own cracker in their right hand and pulls their neighbor’s cracker with their left hand. A large group can even make a chain by crossing their arms and pulling all of the crackers at once. Regardless of method, opening the crackers is a collaborative experience that includes everyone around the table and provides plenty of opportunities for laughter and fun.
Several treats are revealed when the crackers are popped open: a paper crown made of colorful tissue paper, a slip of paper containing a joke or riddle, and a small gift (such as a puzzle, miniature figurine, or spinny-top). Regardless of age, everyone wears their paper crown and reads their joke or riddle – which is usually a silly and corny quip that has been around for decades! – aloud to the table.
Where did this tradition of Christmas crackers and paper crowns originate?
During the 1840s in Victorian England, a confectioner named Tom Smith began selling the “bon-bon” – a sugared almond wrapped in a twist of tissue paper – in his London shop during Christmas after discovering this sweet treat during a trip to Paris. When demand and sales virtually ceased in January, he was anxious to further develop the bon-bon and fashion it into an asset for his business. His addition of a small love motto in the packaging (this was the Victorian era, after all!) boosted sales, yet the majority of bon-bons were only sold during the Christmas season.
Smith’s flash of inspiration came one night as he sat by the fire, listening to the sparks and cracks of the burning logs. What if the fancy wrappers of his sweets could be opened with a crack, adding excitement and a fun spark to his treats? And so, in 1847, the Christmas cracker was born!
After perfecting the chemical explosion to create the “pop,” Smith marketed his creation as “Cosaques,” thought to be named after Russian/Ukrainian soldiers who had a reputation for firing their guns into the air as they rode on horseback. He further refined his creation by replacing the sweet with a surprise gift, although the motto was still included inside. As rival varieties appeared over time, the onomatopoeic “cracker” became the name commonly used by the public for Smith’s festive treat.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Smith’s sons expanded the business by developing new designs, contents, and mottos that celebrated the events and trends that were popular at the time – essentially offering a wide, ever-changing variety of “themed” crackers for holidays, specific groups, and special occasions (such as coronations, war heroes, bachelors/spinsters, etc.). The early mottos original to the product, mainly love verses that reflected the romanticism of the Victorian era, were eventually replaced by puzzles and cartoons, and in the 1930s, by the corny jokes and riddles we find in our crackers today.
The paper crown was added to the festive crackers in the early 1900s and may have originated from the Twelfth Night celebrations that have occurred throughout Britain for centuries, where a “King and Queen” were appointed from a group of revelers to lead their celebrations. The tradition may even date back to the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia, during which a master of ceremonies was appointed to “rule” the celebration as “King,” complete with a decorative crown.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of my grandparents showing me how to make my Christmas cracker pop. These crackers became a tradition at my family’s Christmas table, something fun and silly that we look forward to each year. With my grandparents’ passing in recent years, I like to think that they’re smiling down at my family as we pop our Christmas crackers and enjoy celebrating together… while wearing our paper crowns, of course!
Are Christmas crackers and paper crowns part of your family’s holiday tradition? However you celebrate, Happy Holidays!
Meghan McKillop is American by birth but British at heart. Endlessly fascinated by British culture, entertainment, history, royalty, literature, and travel, she aspires to indulge her curiosity while sharing her passions and discoveries with Anglophiles everywhere.