Charlotte Mackaness doffs her paper hat to a cracking invention that makes each Christmas go with a bang.

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The history of Christmas crackers is surrounded by a surprising amount of controversy. For starters, they are the epitome of the throwaway Christmas culture: their very reason for being is to be destroyed. All that waste must have been quite a naughty thrill to the thrifty and famously prudent Victorians who invented them. But as we know the Victorians and Edwardians are largely responsible for how most of traditional England still lives, from what to wear when shooting and what to wear out hunting.

Since then, the history of Christmas crackers has witnessed crackers banned during various periods and caught up in trade disputes, not to mention numerous battles around the Christmas table over ownership of the ubiquitous mini screwdriver set. One tip to avoid a Christmas meltdown: take advantage of our special Christmas subscription offer and save 38%.

THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS CRACKERS

While nobody argues that the history of Christmas crackers began in the late 19th century, there’s an on-going debate about their actual inventor. Some credit a chap called James Hovell, while one school of thought believes it was an innovative Italian by the name of Sparagnapane. But most side with the far less exotic-sounding Tom Smith, a confectioner from London.

The history of Christmas crackers. Holly and mistletoe are as much a part of a festive Christmas as Christmas crackers.

Holly and mistletoe are as much a part of a festive Christmas as Christmas crackers.

Give or take a few years, the the history of Christmas crackers began in 1860. It took not one but two Eureka moments to create the cracker as we know it. Supposedly, Tom Smith travelled to Paris in the 1840s where he was taken with bon-bons, sweets wrapped in a colourful twist of paper. Some time later the crackle of a log in the fireplace of the Smith family home gave him the idea for the snap.
“Who knows the truth?” says Peter Kimpton, an authority on the history of Chrismas crackers (the world’s only cracker historian) and author of The King Of Crackers. “Perhaps Tom Smith was simply an excellent marketing man and did a good job in getting the message out that the idea was his.” Regardless of who should claim the credit, there’s no denying it was a cracking invention, and one that has lasted 150 years.

Very little has changed in this time. To stay ahead of competitors, who had also started to produce bon-bons, Smith added a motto and, later, small trinkets. “Tom Smith was brilliant at spotting gaps in the market and coming up with new ideas. For example, there were special crackers for spinsters and bachelors,” explains Kimpton.

ARTIST MUNNINGS MADE CHRISTMAS CRACKERS

“In Victorian days, people had the luxury of time to produce beautifully printed crackers and boxes. The mottos inside would have been poetic and romantic. Because there was nothing like radio or television for entertainment, much more would have been made of the crackers during the Christmas meal. A family would probably spend a long time poring over the crackers and comparing their contents,” he adds.

Decoration for cracker boxes was a serious business. Even the great Munnings started his working life producing designs for Caley’s, another important maker. “Proofs still exist of Munnings’s work with comments from him such as ‘Not my colours’ or ‘Not my layout,'” reveals Kimpton. “The crackers and boxes were beautifully decorated along various themes. Not only are they fantastic works of art, they’re also a chronicle of social history.”

The Royal Family, suffragettes, the Scout movement and the Thirties’ obsession with a Channel tunnel are just a few of the hot topics that found themselves on crackers. The festive bangers also helped with the war effort. Patriotic and militaristic decoration such as an English Tommy with a German eagle on a lead poured scorn on the enemy and boosted morale. During the Second World War the government even used cracker snaps to imitate gunfire for some fairly rudimentary troop training. This meant that cracker production was banned during the war.

According to Peter Kimpton, the period from the 1890s up to the end of the First World War was the heyday of the cracker, and then from 1953 one city was at the very centre of this flourishing festive industry: Norwich. “Norwich was the cracker-making capital of the world,” he explains. “Several major factories, including Tom Smith’s and Caley’s, were based there. I worked for Tom Smith’s between 1986 and 1992 and even then we were making more than 50 million crackers a year.”

Although the Tom Smith’s brand still exists, family ownership and the Norwich factory are things of the past. “Very few crackers are made in this country now. Most are produced in China, where they are stamped out and made of wafer-thin cardboard. In the old days, there would have been rows of girls on benches, carefully winding the cracker material around rollers,” says Kimpton.

POSH CRACKERS GO WITH A BANG

Luckily, the history of Christmas crackers does not end in China. A small band of deft-fingered cracker-makers remains. “One of our very fast girls could probably create a basic cracker in about a minute. Our crackers average about five minutes’ making,” claims Jo O’Connor of Upper Crust Crackers, a business specialising in handmade crackers. “By the time we get to Christmas, most of the makers have fairly gnarled-looking hands.
We manufacture all year round but the period from late summer up until Christmas is the busiest. At this time we take on a whole raft of part-timers to bolster our four full-time staff and 15 or so home workers,” she explains. Last year was particularly pressurised due to the politics of world trade. “The ‘snaps’ are shipped in bulk from China. Our supplies were coming in on an enormous ship filled with Christmas goods that was held up because of rumblings about the number of imports from China. They arrived very late and we had a nail-biting time.”

Upper Crust has an enviable list of clients, including Elton John (who went for pink and feathery creations), numerous swanky London hotels, the Orient Express and the Burg Al Arab in Dubai, the world’s only seven-star hotel. “They are ever so thoughtful and always order around Easter, usually around 5,000,” O’Connor says of the exotic establishment.

However, having such an international client base does pose some problems. “It’s very difficult choosing jokes because the hotels have a wide variety of nationalities as guests. The gags have to be very politically correct these days and we have to make sure there isn’t anything that might offend a range of cultures,” she explains.

Throughout the year, Upper Crust Crackers amasses a short list of jokes and the staff votes on the best. “We usually end up with a bank of about 50 that we print. As far as jokes go, the cheesier the better. It’s all part of the fun, and I think it is what is expected. A few years ago we decided to replace the jokes with trivia because we thought it was more upmarket, but people didn’t like it one iota so we put them back pronto,” reveals O’Connor.

Thornback & Peel boast some delightfully country inspired Christmas crackers. This year there are three excellent designs. A robin and holly design, stag and spot or partridges and pear prints make up these top quality additions to the festive table.

The history of Christmas crackers. Thornback & Peel Christmas crackers look well on the festive country table.

Thornback & Peel Christmas crackers look well on the festive country table.

The Thornback & Peel Christmas Crackers, are £55 for six or £10 eachor £9.95 each. And the interior definitely lives up to the elegant exterior.  Each Christmas cracker contains a hat, snap, joke and a hand printed festive Thornback & Peel handkerchief.

Increasingly, crackers are being brought out for other high days and holidays. “They are becoming more popular for weddings particularly. We once made crackers for a couple who put G-strings inside as the gift. On a more romantic note, we took an order for a special cracker that contained an engagement ring,” she says.

The Upper Crust cracker-makers are no strangers to splendid prizes, as they are responsible for the sumptuous crackers sold by Asprey. The Bond Street emporium’s purple and silver crackers cost £200 a pop. They are available individually but are also sold in boxes of six and 12. Silver pens, compasses, silk scarves, pendants and cuff-links are among the treasures found inside.

One way of ensuring there’s something more inspiring than a comedy moustache in your cracker is to make or customise your own, something the Royal Family is said to favour. The disparity of cracker contents is one of the wonders of the festive season but, just like the awful jokes and the paper hats that always tear or fall off, ridiculous and sometimes useless prizes are half the fun and have become a Christmas tradition in their own right.

“The pointless plastic shapes that nobody could possibly want – except for small children who might choke on them – are always a source of amusement and bewilderment. Who designs them and what on earth could anybody want a plastic monkey for?” says Billie Baker from party planner Portfolio Events. “Mind you, I think most of us secretly like the mini sewing kits, padlocks and that sort of thing, they always come in handy.

“No matter how badly made they are or how laughable the contents, crackers are at the heart of a good Christmas party,” she continues. “They’re a great ice-breaker: if you’re sat next to someone you don’t know comparing prizes and groaning at the gags is a good way to get the conversation flowing. Crackers are also wonderful levellers as it is absolutely impossible to look good in the silly hats.”

Learn how to make your own Christmas crackers.