by Ben Johnson
All over Britain on Christmas Day, families can be found sitting around their dining tables enjoying a traditional lunch of roast turkey with all the trimmings – and all, regardless of age, wearing coloured paper hats. It is rumoured that even the Queen wears her paper hat over lunch!
So why this quaint tradition? Where do these paper hats come from? The answer is the Christmas Cracker.
A Christmas Cracker is a cardboard paper tube, wrapped in brightly coloured paper and twisted at both ends. There is a banger inside the cracker, two strips of chemically impregnated paper that react with friction so that when the cracker is pulled apart by two people, the cracker makes a bang.
Each person takes the end of the cracker and pulls. Or if there is a group around the table, everyone crosses their arms to pull all the crackers at once. Everyone holds their own cracker in their right hand and pulls their neighbour’s cracker with their free left hand.
Inside the cracker there is a paper crown made from tissue paper, a motto or joke on a slip of paper and a little gift. It is a standing joke that the mottos in crackers are unfunny, corny and often very well known, as the same jokes have been appearing in crackers for decades!
Crackers can be made from scratch using empty toilet rolls and tissue paper: the maker can then choose small personalised gifts for their guests.
Christmas crackers are a British tradition dating back to Victorian times when in the early 1850s, London confectioner Tom Smith started adding a motto to his sugared almond bon-bons which he sold wrapped in a twisted paper package. As many of his bon-bons were bought by men to give to women, many of the mottos were simple love poems.
He was inspired to add the “bang” when he heard the crackle of a log he had just put on the fire. He decided to make a log shaped package that would produce a surprise bang and inside would be an almond and a motto. Soon the sugared almond was replaced with a small gift. Originally sold as the Cosaque it soon became known by the public as the ‘cracker’.
The paper hat was added to the cracker in the early 1900s by his sons and by the end of the 1930s, the love poems had been replaced by jokes or limericks. The cracker was soon adopted as a traditional festive custom and today virtually every household has at lest one box of crackers to pull over Christmas.
The idea of wearing a paper crown may have originated from the Twelfth Night celebrations, where a King or Queen was appointed to look over the proceedings.