Saturday, December 19, 2020

Christmas Crackers

The United States having originated from thirteen British colonies, the United Kingdom and the United States share quite a few Christmas traditions in common.  One tradition they do not have in common is that of Christmas crackers, although many Americans may be familiar with them from British TV shows and movies. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Christmas crackers, they are essentially tubes of brightly coloured paper that make a cracking noise when pulled apart. Christmas crackers almost always contain some sort of prize, such as a small trinket or paper hat, as well as a joke. Christmas crackers are found at Christmas dinner and Christmas parties.

Christmas crackers appear to have originated with Tom Smith, a confectioner in London. It was in 1846 that Tom Smith visited Paris and encountered French bonbons. It was in 1847 that he introduced what he called "Cracker Bonbons" in his London sweetshop. Cracker Bonbons were bonbons wrapped in paper that included a short message or joke with the sweet. Eventually Tom Smith's Cracker Bonbons slumped in sales. It was in 1860 that Tom Smith then came up with the idea of his crackers making a noise when pulled apart. He bought the formula for the explosive element in his crackers from chemist Tom Brown, who had worked for Brock Fireworks. Initially called "Bangs of Expectation" and still later Cosaques (French of "Cossaks"), people insisted on still calling them "crackers" after the sound they made.

Tom Smith died in 1869, after which his three sons further developed the Christmas cracker. It would be his youngest son, Walter Smith,  who would introduce the somewhat humorous mottos found in Christmas crackers. He also introduced the paper hats and various trinkets into the crackers. This was done to differentiate the Tom Smith Cracker company from its competitors.

Tom Smith's Christmas crackers proved to be so popular that by the 1890s the company had 2000 people on staff. The company also had to move from its original premises on Goswell Road in Clerkenwell to larger premises in Finsbury Square in London.

While Christmas crackers have only been around for about 160 years, they have become as much of a Christmas tradition in Britain as decking the halls with boughs of holly.

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