Christmas collection: The Christmas Cracker, its history and inspiration

Pulling a Christmas Cracker on Christmas Day is one of the traditional festivities of the day. Laid on the Christmas dinner table next to each plate waiting for two people to see who will win the prize inside. It is now firmly a part of Christmas Day but crackers were not made with this intention…

The first cracker was made by a London sweet maker called Tom Smith. After travelling to Paris in 1840 and seeing the French holiday custom of wrapping sugared almonds and other sweets in a twist of coloured paper called  ‘bon bon’ sweets, he decided to try and sell sweets like that back in England. He began selling them also including a romantic message which he marketed as “Kiss Mottoes”.  However they had limited success.

One night, sitting by the fire he was inspired to add the “bang” when he heard the crackle of a log he had just put on the fire. He bought the recipe for the small cracks and bangs in crackers from a fireworks company called Brock’s Fireworks. In 1861 Tom Smith launched his new range ‘Bangs of Expectations’.

Originally they were sold as ‘Cosaques’ with this name thought to be after the ‘Cossack’ soldiers who had a reputation for riding on their horses and firing guns into the air. They were soon referred to as crackers due to the cracking sound made when pulling and the sugared almond was replaced with a small gift. He designed 8 different kinds of cracker and distributed stocks throughout the country in time for Christmas as this proved to be the most popular time when crackers were bought.

Tom Smith’s Surprise Cosaques, Christmas Crackers 1878 Date: 1878

When Tom died in 1869, his three sons, Tom, Walter and Henry took over the cracker business. They built the company up with a range of ‘themed’ crackers. There were some for single men and women filled with gifts such as false teeth and wedding rings as well as crackers for Sufragettes, war heroes and special occasions like Coronations. Special crackers were also made for the Royal Family, the first was granted to the Prince of Wales in 1906. The Royal Family still have crackers made for them today. 

An original cardboard box containing twelve Tom Smith’s Christmas crackers (complete set) possibly dating from between 1901 to 1910 in the reign of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.

The paper hat was added to the cracker in the early 1900s. The idea of wearing a paper crown may have originated from the Tweflth Night celebrations where a King or Queen was appointed to look over the proceedings. The paper crown can also be traced back to the ancient Romans, who wore festive headgear during the festival Saturnalia which took place around the winter solstice. Another theory is that the paper crown symbolises the crowns that might have been worn by the Wise Men.

By the 1920s, Tom Smith’s crackers were advertised as “World Renowned Christmas Crackers. No party complete without them.” It wasn’t until the end of the 1930s when jokes or limericks were added to the crackers, which is why on Christmas Day we all recite the comical or sometimes awfully comical jokes. 

WW2 caused paper rationing and a restriction on the manufacture of cracker snaps but the industry recovered. In the 1950s and 1960s, Tom Smith & Co. was making 30,000 crackers a week. 

So thanks to French influence and the bright imagination of Tom Smith, we all enjoy the festivity of pulling a Christmas Cracker on Christmas Day and receiving a little gift.

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