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The scene: A dark December night in Durham, a city in the northern reaches of England, 1999. I am sitting at the Boxing Day table of a college friend, amazed at the sight of an actual Yorkshire pudding in front of me.
But I’m puzzled by the gaily wrapped cylinder resting next to the plate. I’m told it’s a Christmas cracker, but it does not look like what I, an American, would call a cracker. My friend’s little brother shows me how it’s done before we eat: One person grabs each end, gives it a pull and a twist, and “SNAP!”
The cylinder bursts open, revealing a tissue paper crown, which instantly goes on the brother’s head, and a piece of paper with a joke on it. Soon, the house is filled with tiny explosions. We put on our own crowns and laugh at corny jokes as we tuck into our hearty dinner.
That celebratory POP! is the sound of holiday fun across the U.K.
According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, a London confectioner named Tom Smith invented Christmas crackers in the mid-19th century. Inspired by French “bonbons” — sweet almonds wrapped in colorful tissue paper — Smith added the popping sound to imitate a crackling fire. He also threw in a love note (nowadays it’s often a silly joke) and a little knickknack; his son later devised the paper crowns, which are now considered a crucial element of a proper cracker.
At first, crackers were produced for all sorts of events, from popular plays to the ending of World War I. In later decades, though, the cracker became associated most closely with Christmas festivities.
They’re still fairly obscure in the United States, but that’s changing. If you want to bring a little British merriment to your holiday celebrations, Christmas crackers are fairly easy to find. Here are a few of our choices for Christmas crackers you can pick up stateside and hopefully have in time for your celebrations:
Yup, these Christmas crackers are made by Tom Smith — the same company that invented them. They’ve got the details right, of course: A paper crown, a slip of paper with a joke and an idea for playing charades, and a little gift. (Note that the gift is very small, so these crackers aren’t recommended for use by kids under age 3.)
This set of Christmas crackers comes highly recommended on Amazon, with the only catch being they don’t pop. This can be a positive for anyone who is noise-averse but a drawback for anyone wanting the classic experience. Everything else is as expected, with the tiny gifts inside getting positive reviews, especially the finger puppets.
An Amazon search for Christmas crackers shows mostly “no-snap” crackers, like the previous pick. These, like those, have all the fun goodies that come in traditional crackers, but without the startling little explosion. If you’ve got guests (or pets) with sensitive ears, no-snap crackers can help keep everyone in the holiday spirit.
Another non-snap option, this time with cute holiday characters on the wrapping: Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, an elf, gingerbread man, nutcracker soldier and cozy penguin. These are perfect for the kids’ table!
Don’t be fooled by this simply decorated Christmas cracker. Inside is a kazoo and instructions on how to play it. The box contains the rules: everyone gets a turn to play a familiar tune on their kazoo, and whoever guesses the most songs correctly wins!
The choice is yours for this year’s holiday table: tedious political debate or kazoo battle? (I know which one I’d choose.)