Once again this year our Christmas lunch table will be decorated with various goodies, small bags of treats, a scattering of greenery, candles and a Tom Smith Christmas Cracker at each place. A very English tradition that hearkens back to 1847 when confectioner Tom Smith was looking at a way to market his twists of sweets. Tradition says that a crack from a burning log gave him the inspiration for the strip of paper impregnated with silver fulminate that give that satisfying snap at the beginning of Christmas dinner.
The initial crackers were filled with candy but sweets were soon dropped in favour of gifts, often of a substantial or personal nature. As they became more common place paper hats, trinkets, and a joke or motto spilled out when the crackers burst. However I did note that these days, for those so inclined little treats such as premium whiskys, perfumes, Mont Blanc pens, a custom designed yacht, or a Caribbeanc condo are available at finer stores everywhere. I can only assume the last two are in the form of gift certificates???
Smith’s invention caught the public’s imagination and his Cosaque (Cossacks), as they were first known, quickly became a popular Christmas product. The name was changed to the more descriptive Crackers within a few years after their first appearance. Smith began to sell hundreds of different themed varieties from as low as 4 up to 48 shillings. His 1891-2 catalogue listed some 200 varieties with fanciful names such as Lilliputian, Cupid’s Playthings, Somebody’s Luggage, Lovers’ Secrets, Darwinian Crackers, and Bal Masque.
The novelty items in the crackers depended on their theme. Spinster’s Crackers included wedding rings, faded flowers, night caps, thimbles, mirrors, powder puffs and hair dye while Bachelor’s Crackers included pipes, bottles of champagne, pawn tickets, cigars, packs of cards and overdue tradesmen’s bills. By comparison today’s cracker bounty tends to seem a little less imaginative if not frankly mundane.
But regardless of the contents a given was and is always the slip of paper with a corny “joke” on it. Friday night our friend Susan introduced a party game that included Christmas Cracker jokes. Laurent and I had them on the floor with a few of these goodies:
December 23 is Pfeffernüsse Day – which are often, so I’m told, mistaken for Russian Tea Cakes. A natural mistake – I guess?