St. Nicholas

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Advent Calendar for Grown-ups

by Paul Bommer

DECEMBER 18 Christmas Cracker

Christmas Cracker

Illustration by Paul Bommer
Used by permission

Christmas crackers or bon-bons are an integral part of Christmas celebrations in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, etc.). They are also popular in Ireland.

A cracker consists of a cardboard tube wrapped in a brightly decorated twist of paper, making it resemble an over-sized sweet-wrapper. The cracker is pulled by two people, and, much in the manner of a wishbone, the cracker splits unevenly. The split is accompanied by a small bang produced by the effect of friction on a chemically impregnated card strip (similar to that used in a cap gun).

Crackers are also a part of New Year celebrations in Russia and some countries of the former Soviet Union. Those are however more similar to pyrotechnical devices, normally used outdoors, activated by one person, and produce a stronger bang accompanied by fire and smoke.

In one version of the tradition the person with the larger portion of cracker empties the contents from the tube and keeps them. In another each person will have their own cracker and will keep its contents regardless of whose end they were in. Typically these contents are a coloured paper hat or crown (a hang-over from Saturnalia perhaps?); a small toy or other trinket and a motto, a joke or piece of trivia on a small strip of paper. Crackers are often pulled before or after Christmas dinners or at parties.

Assembled crackers are typically sold in boxes of three to twelve. These typically have different designs usually with red, green and gold colours. Making crackers from scratch using the tubes from used toilet rolls and tissue paper is a common Commonwealth activity for children. Kits to make crackers can also be purchased.

Crackers were invented by Thomas J. Smith of London 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 mottos into the wrappers of the sweets (cf. fortune cookies), but this had only limited success.

He was inspired to add the "crackle" element when he heard the crackle of a log he had just put on the 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 were introduced to 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 many copycat cracker manufacturers which had suddenly sprung up.

The image I have created is based on a late Victorian or Edwardian greetings card that I stumbled upon here on Facebook, showing a Pine-cone sprite (whatever that is!?) and Mr Punch pulling a cracker, with the legend 'Merry Christmas' above them. I have replaced that with the German, which I think has a charm all of its own. Plus, to my Englische ears, sounds funny!

From Paul Bommer: Illustration, design & Print-making. Used by permission.

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