FAQ’s What is a Christmas Cracker?

and what to do with it…when you find it at your table….

The Party Favor, an oil painting by American artist Norman Rockwell

Christmas crackers are festive table decorations that make a snapping sound when pulled open, and often contain a small gift and a joke. They are part of Christmas celebrations in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Commonwealth countries such as Australia (where they are sometimes known as bon-bons), Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.

A cracker consists of a segmented cardboard tube wrapped in a brightly decorated twist of paper with a prize in the middle, making it resemble an oversized sweet-wrapper. The cracker is pulled apart by two people, each holding an outer chamber, causing the cracker to split unevenly and leaving one person holding the central chamber and prize. The split is accompanied by a mild bang or snapping sound produced by the effect of friction on a shock-sensitive, chemically impregnated card strip (similar to that used in a cap gun). One chemical used for the friction strip is silver fulminate. Because of that, they are banned on airplanes.

Crackers are traditionally pulled during Christmas dinner or at Christmas parties by two people. One version of the cracker ritual holds that the person who ends up with the larger end of cracker earns the right to keep the contents of the cardboard tube. Sometimes, each participant retains ownership of their own cracker and keeps its contents regardless of the outcome.

Tom Smith

Tradition tells of how Tom Smith (1823–1869) of London invented crackers in 1847. He created the crackers as a development of his bon-bon sweets, which he sold in a twist of paper (the origins of the traditional sweet-wrapper). As sales of bon-bons slumped, Smith began to come up with new promotional ideas. His first tactic was to insert love messages into the wrappers of the sweets (similar to fortune cookies).

Smith added the “crackle” element when he heard the crackle of a log he had just put on a fire. The size of the paper wrapper had to be increased to incorporate the banger mechanism, and the sweet itself was eventually dropped, to be replaced by a trinket: fans, jewellery and other substantial items. The new product was initially marketed as the Cosaque (French for Cossack), but the onomatopoeic “cracker” soon became the commonly used name, as rival varieties came on the market.

The other elements of the modern cracker—the gifts, paper hats and varied designs—were all introduced by Tom Smith’s son, Walter Smith, to differentiate his product from the rival cracker manufacturers which had suddenly sprung up.

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