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Christmas A to Z

Learn interesting, unusual, unique and useful facts and tips about Christmas and the winter holiday season, in America and around the world.

What are Christmas Crackers?

T

hey’re not edible, though they sort of started out that way.

It turns out that the celebratory Crackers of today, the ones you can buy at Home Goods and TJ Maxx as well as more upscale retailers, started out as wrappers for English bon-bons (which probably weren’t the chocolate kind but instead were sugar-coated almonds).

Christmas Crackers now come wrapped in a variety of colors and lengths. They’re a cardboard tube that usually contains a colored tissue hat or crown, a toy or game of some sort and – like a fortune cookie – some sort of witty (or pithy) saying or bit of trivia. The wrapping is enclosed at both ends but with enough room to be able to stick two fingers in each end in order to grasp a thin tab. When the tabs are pulled outward at the same time an explosive "CRAC" sounds (thanks to a process that operates sort of like using a hammer on a singleton from a roll of caps) and the whole thing comes apart to reveal the contents.

This process can occur either before or after Christmas dinner – and wearing the hats or crowns usually adds to the merriment of the occasion so many folks pop their Crackers beforehand.

The quality of the Cracker’s contents usually increases with the price – and the name on the store where they’re purchased.

But, back to bon-bons. Back in the mid-1800s, Tomas J. Smith, a confectioner in London had done well selling bon-bons, but the market tanked so he wanted to do something to restart it. He wrapped each bon-bon in a fancy wrapping that was tied at each end and included some sort of advice or current phrase (like fortune cookies) – but that didn’t work too well.

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 small gift. The new product was initially marketed as the Cosaque (i.e., 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.

While English school kids learn how to make their own Crackers out of toilet paper tubes, that idea hasn’t caught on here in the U.S.

Written by Dianne Weller
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