Crackers. According to my trusty on-line thesaurus there are over 20 definitions of the word; mostly having to do with biscuits or being off your rocker. The latter mind you is probably what comes to mind by those attending their first traditional English Christmas Dinner. For there we all sit around the festive table, with its best china and silverware, decked out in our holiday finery, while sporting a-top our heads colored tissue paper crowns.
The crowns are said by some to symbolize those worn by the Wise Men, but that tribute to the real meaning of Christmas is generally overlooked amidst the crown's accompanying items. Namely, a small toy or novelty and a strip of paper on which is printed a joke, riddle or motto. All three are contained in a small cardboard tube wrapped in a twist of colorful paper. Threaded through the tube are two narrow pieces of thin cardboard, the ends of which are treated with a chemical similar to that used in a cap gun. The strips are joined together with the treated areas overlapping. This then is what constitutes a Christmas Cracker.
The crackers are placed at each place setting and dinner cannot commence until the diners have chosen a partner with whom to pull their crackers. Or the diners cross their arms and holding their cracker in their right hand pulls their neighbor's cracker with their free left hand. As the cracker is pulled apart, the cap gun substance produces a "snapping" or "popping" sound and the person with the largest half of the cracker gets to claim the contents, which have usually spilled out onto the table top. There's nothing more fun than digging a cheap piece of plastic out of a gravy boat. The festive atmosphere is made all the more merry as people take turns to read aloud their corny jokes and play with their novelty items.
Christmas Crackers came to being in the 1840s, when a London sweet seller, Tom Smith, was looking to invigorate his sales. He'd already had success with an idea he'd pinched from the French during a visit to Paris; bon-bons wrapped in a twist of tissue paper. But sales were slumping. They picked up after he began to insert love notes into the sweet wrappers. It was a seasonal surge though with most of the bon-bons being sold at Christmas. Tom pondered how he might capitalize on the short but highly profitable season.
Inspiration came to Tom in a flash, as he sat in front of his wood burning fire. So mesmerized was he by the crackle of the logs, that he wanted to wrap up the sound they made and share it with his customers. He went about increasing the size of the sweet wrapper so he could include a mechanism that made a popping sound. He then replaced the candy inside with a trinket. Tom's product was initially named a Cosaque, but people began calling it a cracker after the sound it made.
Tom Smith's Christmas Crackers took off with a bang so to speak and were soon being replicated by copy-cat manufacturers wanting to cash in on his idea. To compete with the abundance of rival cracker makers, Smith's son Walter differentiated the Smith cracker with the inclusion of a paper hat. Tom Smith crackers are still available today and hold the distinction of holding a Royal Warrant from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
So what's a cracker cost? It all depends on the size, the type of paper and the quality of the novelty item. Bumper packs that are available in your everyday supermarket or pound (dollar) store, cost anywhere from one to five pounds ($1.50-$7.50) for a box of eight. Whereas a box of six vintage-design luxury crackers purchased at Harrods sell for the equivalent of $900. The "novelty" found inside include such items as a silk handkerchief and cufflinks, silk scarf and scarf pin, leather passport holder and mobile phone case and crystal drop earrings and bracelet. The perfect cracker for the overseas guest whose luggage has been mislaid at Heathrow.
Fortnum and Masons high-end crackers come slightly cheaper: a mere bargain at five hundred pounds (about $750) for a box of six. For that price I'd expect a genie to pop out who could magic away the dirty dishes. Instead, the velvet-trimmed crackers contain silver plated items such as a jam spoon and butter knife, a corkscrew and champagne stopper, and a tea-infuser. When pulled, they also play a jolly carol.
For the more down-to-earth Fortnum and Mason customer (if there is such a thing) there's the less opulent cracker option, costing a little under $100 for a box of six. Figuring that the people who buy those must be the type that enjoy a good old "knees-up", Fortnum's have thoughtfully included items such as a xylophone block and baton, or whistles that play different tones.
My own personal preference in Christmas Crackers are those of the cheap 'n cheerful variety. Their novelties may be plastic, their jokes corny, and the hats might fall off every time you reach for the Brussels sprouts, but at least I don't have to worry about my silver plated jam spoon ending up down the garbage disposal.
Wishing you a cracker of a New Year!