Pic courtesy of Fortnum & Mason

Snap, Crackle and Pop

13th December 2013

Kathy Walton gets cracking on the trail of an old tradition…

Whatever customs we observe at the festive season, few of us will celebrate Christmas without a box of crackers – whether it’s a dainty selection to decorate the tree, a family size box for feeding the five thousand at lunch, or even an adult version with ‘50 shades of fun content’.

This year, some 800 million people worldwide will turn to their neighbour at the table and, in the time-honoured way of linking hands with the left and pulling with the right, tear apart a cardboard roll covered in shiny paper, which, when it breaks open with a bang, inevitably spills its contents into the gravy of the person who pulled the ‘lucky’ end.

Most of us don’t so much rejoice over the things we find in crackers, as give a good-natured groan of recognition. Like it or not, those same old corny jokes, cheesy words of wisdom and naff plastic ‘keepsakes’ make their appearance every year.

Actually, let’s be honest, some of the stuff you find in crackers is as appealing as the turkey curry you’ll still be eating through January. Last year, for instance, crackers at Chateau Walton contained an indecipherable puzzle with instructions in (we think) Polish; some oddly-shaped pieces which, no matter how hard we tried, never actually made anything – and a plastic nail clipper.

Yet despite their pointlessness, crackers are universally popular. Here, we buy them mainly for Christmas Day, while in Germany they pull them on New Year’s Eve. Families in Catholic countries don’t usually pull them until Twelfth Night (the evening of 5 January), traditionally the occasion when the children receive their presents. Let’s hope that if they’ve waited that long, their crackers contain something more useful than those infuriating little games that require you to guide a tiny silver ball into a microscopic hole.

With ‘treats’ such as these, crackers must surely represent the ultimate in self-deprecating humour. No surprise then, that they are a British invention.

What is surprising is that, given our national fondness for coming second, crackers have proved such an enduring success. In fact, they have never gone out of fashion since they first appeared in London in the mid-19th century.

In 1840, London confectioner Thomas Smith returned from a trip to Paris with ‘bonbons’ – sugared almonds wrapped in a twist of tissue paper. He began to produce his own, and hit upon the idea of including love messages inside the wrapper to encourage young men to buy them for their sweethearts.

Keen to boost sales further, Smith had a flash of inspiration in 1847, when he heard a log crackle as he threw it on the fire. Fortunately for the enterprising young baker, elf ’n’ safety didn’t exist in the 19th century (not even at Christmas, ha ha) so he was able to experiment with chemically impregnated paper, eventually creating the right amount of friction to reproduce the ‘snap’ of the fire.

He kept the motto, but sized up the packaging and replaced the almond with a surprise gift. His ‘Bangs of Expectation’ or ‘Cosaques’ (named after the Cossack soldiers of the Franco-Prussian War) were an instant success. Sales exploded, and large numbers of young women were employed at Smith’s Clerkenwell factory to make the casings by hand.

Queen Victoria was not amused. She banned the use of crackers on Twelfth Night, fearing riotous behaviour that would be inappropriate for Epiphany (which follows Twelfth Night and marks the visit of the Three Wise Men – and thus the revelation of God made man in Jesus; definitely not an occasion for levity).

It’s ironic, therefore, that it was thanks to Twelfth Night that the now traditional paper crowns found their way into the contents. Introduced by Smith’s sons, they were inspired by the 12th century tradition of appointing a ‘king’ and a ‘queen’ to oversee proceedings at Twelfth Night parties.

To counter the competition (which was instant, and included manufacturers in the East as well as at home), Smith scoured Europe for imaginative goodies to put inside his crackers and produced ‘themed’ collections designed for year-round enjoyment. Early crackers could contain bracelets from Bohemia, scarf pins from Saxony, or miniature perfume bottles from France.

By the turn of the 20th century, Smith’s was selling 13 million crackers per year. A rival firm, Caley Crackers of Norwich (with whom Smiths merged in 1953), also capitalised on the demand for exotic and bespoke collections. Circa 1900, Caleys’ printers took on a trainee, the future Sir Alfred Mannings (famous for his horse paintings), to design the firm’s wrappings. Though by their very nature crackers didn’t last long, the magnificent boxes that they came in and their beautifully illustrated catalogues rapidly became collectors’ items, and still fetch large sums at auction today.

These highly decorated boxes and their contents were inspired by subjects as diverse as Tutankhamen and Charlie Chaplin, jazz musicians and war heroes. For well-travelled customers, there were collections capturing the beauty of the French Riviera or Japanese art; soldiers and diplomats stationed in India were sent Empire crackers; and during the US gold rush, people snapped up Klondike crackers. There was even a collection dedicated to the Wireless and, in 1914, to the Channel Tunnel scheme.

There was a dinner-party collection dubbed ‘Smart Set Society’ and another for Suffragettes (sadly the contents of neither are known). The Spinsters’ and Bachelors’ cracker collections contained, respectively, wedding-rings and sets of false teeth.

In 1927, Smiths received, through the post, a diamond ring and a ten shilling note, with instructions to put the ring in a cracker for the man’s fiancée. Curiously, the man provided no address and failed to make contact again. The ring, money and letter remain in the firm’s safe to this day.

Despite their very Englishness, there’s undeniably something intrinsically vulgar about crackers – their noise, their garish colours and the sheer tackiness of their contents, but for all that, they continue to be central to our Christmas celebrations, and even the Royal Family are known to enjoy them. Since 1906, when Smiths were awarded a royal warrant, the royals have had theirs specially made, and their contents are a closely guarded secret.

In 1998, Smiths became a subsidiary of Napier Industries, the world’s largest cracker manufacturer. Historians of the future may conclude that our crackers fail to reflect the political developments or social pre-occupations of our era in the way that early Smiths collections did – or will they?

After all, today, you can buy crackers with names such as Bad Taste, Wallace and Gromit, and Russell Grant’s Astrological Collection. The archivists of tomorrow could be forgiven for being confused about the preoccupations of 21st century Britain, for at the other end of the spectrum, there are also recyclable crackers and altruistic crackers (from the Amersham-based charity Embrace the Middle East), part of whose price pays for immunisations or eye screening for refugee children.

Depending on where you buy them, crackers start from £5 for six or, in certain exclusive stores, sell for a cracking £1000 each. That’s a lot of bucks for your bang, Mr Smith.

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