Christmas crackers never really took off in the US, but throughout the rest of the English-speaking world, they are an integral part of the seasonal celebration. In the UK and Ireland, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without crackers. In Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand, it’s the same. Heck, even Canada is clued in. But, in the United States, lots of folks would be looking for some sort of delicious spread if the topic of Christmas crackers came up.
Despite how it sounds, though, a Christmas cracker isn’t food. It does look something like a gigantic piece of candy, like an oversized festive Tootsie Roll, but there’s nothing sweet inside, at least not edible. A Christmas cracker is actually a tube about the size of a toilet paper roll that is wrapped in shimmer holiday paper, which is then twisted close on both ends.
But, that’s just what’s on the outside.
Now, before we get overly bewildered with what it is, we should become familiar with what’s done with it. Christmas crackers traditionally come out at the Christmas dinner table, and each person sitting around the table gets one. Two people will hold opposite ends of the crackers and pull until it breaks into two pieces. As this happens, there is a loud bang, or crack if you will, similarly to that of a toy cap gun. There is a strip of cardstock with a shock-sensitive chemical, silver fulminate, on it that is set off by the friction of pulling the cracker apart.
Then, one party—either the one with the largest piece of the cracker or the one whose cracker it is, depending on the particular practice in place—gets to keep the contents of the cardboard tube. We’ll get to those contents in just a moment.
Christmas crackers date back to the mid-1800s. Legend has it that Tom Smith, the developer of a sweet called bon-bons, invented the cracker as a way to promote his candy when sales began to slump. The candy was wrapped in a bit of paper twisted at both ends. At first, he put love messages inside the wrappers, but when that didn’t work, he added a small bang or “crackle”. The story goes that he was inspired after having put a log on the fire and heard it crackle.
In order to make the packaging crackle, he had to make it larger. As a result, the unpopular candy soon gave way and was replaced with cheap trinkets. This version was then renamed Cosaques, and the shiny wrapping with little gifts inside made it a Christmas delight.
Soon rival companies began selling the same thing, and it didn’t take long for folks to start generically calling them crackers. As years passed, the tradition continued, and Walter Smith, Tom’s son, added a few other surprises into the mix. Eventually, as demand for crackers grew, Tom Smith (the company) merged with Caley Crackers to handle the demand, and after further mergers, the business left the family.
Nowadays, Christmas crackers come with a prescribed bevy of silly surprises. There is still a small, inexpensive trinket of some sort, often a keychain or whistle or plastic toy, not unlike what’s in a Cracker Jack box (a whole different story). In addition, crackers bestow a slip of paper with a corny joke and a bit of trivia to share with fellow revelers. And, there is a paper “hat”, which is much more like a crown, that diners then wear during dinner if not for the remainder of the day.
Why They Aren’t a US Tradition
Because the US stopped being a British colony in the late 1700s, before the cracker existed, it wasn’t brought over to the States as a tradition. Nowadays, due to the silver fulminate, it can’t be carried aboard airplanes; thus, it has not made a big splash stateside. Nevertheless, perhaps for those who live here now and have this tradition, Christmas crackers, like everything else, can be bought online. Or, they can be made at home as a holiday project for the kids (or adults).
How to Make a Christmas Cracker
Again, kits for making Christmas crackers are available online as well, but isn’t it more fun (and ecological) to do it with recycled materials. All you’ll need is some leftover wrapping paper (or magazine pages or newspaper), toilet rolls, some twine, the (homemade) goodies for inside, and a cracker snap (this will need to be ordered). Then, follow these easy YouTube! video for how to put it all together.
- Note: My British wife and I forego the cracker snap and just yell “Bang!” when we pull our homemade crackers apart. This might not be as authentic, but we stole the idea from one of our favorite British sitcoms, The Good Life.
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