‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through the expat house we were contemplating some slightly odd but fun English Christmas traditions. All hail the Christmas Cracker! (And featuring a make-this-at-home tutorial.)
First, a history lesson. In 1847, one Tom Smith, a baker, invented the Christmas cracker, which evolved from a ‘bon bon’ he discovered in Paris. The bon bon was a sugared almond wrapped in a twist of tissue paper. Smith developed the bon bon into the cracker of today, including within it a love motto as well as a sweet. Eventually—and this is very much about marketing, dear reader—he had the idea to include a teeny, tiny bang—a strip of cardboard running the length of the cracker impregnated with a chemical that, when pulled, creates the distinctive “bang” of a cracker.
Today, a Christmas cracker is placed at each person’s seat at the table on Christmas day, and, when everyone is feeling suitably merry, usually halfway through the meal in my family’s case, we start to pick up our crackers, present one end to our neighbor, and pull. Some people like to say the person who ends up with the longer portion of cracker gets to keep the prize inside, others say that whoever the cracker belonged to originally gets to keep the prize. You decide.
Today, every cracker—at least the bog standard ones—contains a paper crown (it’s history, folks: the wearing of hats at Christmas dates back to Roman times and Saturnalia celebrations, sources tell me), a very bad joke (and it must be a very bad joke) and a cheap, usually plastic, prize. (There are exceptions to this; more below.)
Examples of bad Christmas cracker jokes:
How do snowmen get around?
They ride an icicle.
What does Santa do with overweight elves?
He sends them to an Elf farm.
Why couldn’t the skeleton go to the Christmas party?
He had no body to go with.
Why are pirates called pirates?
Because they arrrrrr!
You can make your own Christmas crackers, as I did—examples in the photo above—or you can buy them. The robin cracker was from a kit and included the paper hat, the joke, and the “bang” but no prize, so I could choose my own. I chose a nice fake mustache for that one because I happened to have one lying around. (No, really, I did.)
It’s easy enough to use a kit, and they’re available in many places, but there’s an easier way to make a cracker using toilet paper tubes, tissue paper, and a bit of glue. And, of course, your prizes.
Collect all these items, insert your prizes—I like chocolate myself—cut your tissue or wrapping paper, glue your tube and wrap the paper around, tying the ends with some festive ribbon. Easy peasy.
Here’s a photo of Christmas cracker prizes from years past—not plastic ones, because they always get thrown away (except for the mustache, it’s definitely plastic)—because doesn’t everyone keep their cracker prizes forever?
Now, if you want to talk posh, rather expensive Christmas crackers that the other 1% might have at their Christmas dinner, I’ve found a selection for you. Try Harrod’s first. Their crackers (I’ve chosen to share the most expensive crackers available) are filled with things like cashmere socks, a leather credit card case or an 18-carat gold bangle. Six of these crackers do not come cheap, but of course, when money is no object, well, enjoy. These will cost you £499, or roughly $748.50. But it’s Christmas, so why not?
Perhaps you fancy the crackers from Selfridge‘s, which contain a tea infuser, golf tees, wooden dice, and a mini whisk, among other prizes. This set of 6 will set you back £60, which is about $90. Joke and paper crown included.
Last, I’ll send you over to Harvey Nichols, or Harvey Nick’s, as the Brits call it. This box features six crackers, each filled with a miniature bottle (a 3cl dram, to be exact) of gin along with the party hat and joke, and will cost you £57, or roughly $85.50. Cheers!
I love going into London and poking around Covent Garden. The only times I manage to get there are weekends or during the summer holidays, when it is packed with natives and tourists alike, all delighting in the eclectic mix of street performers, posh shops, market stalls and restaurants.
My very first trip to Covent Garden must’ve been 20 years ago and I’ve loved it ever since. It’s definitely one of my “Top 10” to visit in London (although there is much of London I still haven’t seen).
Covent Garden is notable this Christmas for the Santa Claus, sleigh and nine shiny reindeer all made out of Lego bricks. Not the sort of thing I might notice if it weren’t for the two Lego mad boys in the house (ok, technically, one is a man). It took a rather impressive 700,000 Lego bricks to make the full-size display; you can even sit on the sleigh next to Santa if you like. (We didn’t sit with Santa when we went; too crowded. Probably also too old.) The company that built it totals 17 full-time staff who build Lego structures for a living. (In italics because this is so very exciting to the boys in my house who dream of playing with Lego bricks for pay, full-time.) Read more about it here. (The photo of Santa, below, was taken from too far away with the camera on my phone, so it’s not very good.)