Christmas crackers are long tubes, wrapped in bright paper that has been twisted at each end. A person pulls on each end of the cracker and when the cracker breaks, a small chemical strip goes “Pop!” and the contents fall out. They traditionally contain a paper party hat, a small gift, a balloon and a joke or old saying. The jokes are generally old ones, and most Britons will recognize them instantly, since the same jokes have been used for many years. It’s part of the charm.
Once the cracker has been opened, those opening it decide who gets the hat and the gift. The jokes are read aloud, everyone groans, and the next cracker is opened. Most British people would say Christmas wouldn’t be the same without a nice assortment of Christmas crackers to open after Christmas dinner is finished.
Christmas crackers are a uniquely British invention. They have their origin in French bon-bons, but pastry cook Tom Smith, inspired by the sound a log makes when thrown on the fire, experimented with the basic idea, and by 1847, had the earliest forms of crackers ready for sale.
Christmas crackers were enlarged to hold better gifts and in the early 20th century, Tom Smith’s sons used them to commemorate important events such as the 1900 Paris Exhibition. They hired writers to compose jokes and sayings appropriate for every occasion and marketed these crackers to a public that couldn’t seem to get enough of them. The tradition has continued and Christmas crackers, as well as other types of crackers, are still sold by the gross in Great Britain. Some companies sell empty crackers that buyers can fill themselves, according to their own tastes.