The custom and origins of Christmas crackers

Last updated on December 12th, 2023 at 07:53 pm

Christmas cracker, traditions, Britain

We take traditions for granted but, when you think about it, some of them are pretty weird.  Amongst the more bizarre British Christmas customs are Christmas crackers.  I refer, not to dry biscuits eaten with cheese and pâté, but to short tubes of cardboard covered with coloured paper, twisted at both ends, each typically containing a novelty or toy, a joke and a paper hat.  There is another type of Christmas cracker, though, which we’ll come on to later.

Back to the coloured tubes.  They will be found decorating Christmas dinner table settings throughout the United Kingdom, Ireland, some Commonwealth countries – and elsewhere, including in the Netherlands.  My sources in the USA reliably inform me that Christmas crackers are not a traditional part of America’s Christmas.  However, they are readily available there, ex-pats buy them and many adventurous souls have given them a try.  Still, if you’re not familiar with these peculiar objects, you may be mystified to see them in movies and so on.  And, quite, frankly, any one of us might wonder where on earth they came from.  So, today, all will be revealed.

Christmas crackers, Liberty of London

Firstly, what do you do with them?  Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? – you grasp the ends and pull them apart.  Of course you do.  This action should result in a sharp, satisfying, ‘Crack!’ (because each cracker contains a tiny explosive snap) – and the contents fall out.  Christmas cracker etiquette varies from household to household – and I’m pretty sure I’ve pulled my very own cracker in the past, so to speak – but, normally, this gratifying experience is shared between at least two people.

There can only be one winner, which is usually the person left with the larger share of tattered cracker; and their prize is the cracker’s contents.  Life doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

Christmas traditions, Christmas crackers

The paper hat – which usually has one serrated edge, like a kind of crown – has to be worn.  There is no time-limit for the duration of this – I’ve witnessed paper hats still on well-fed somnolent forms well past the Queen’s (or King’s) speech, way into the evening and, occasionally, at breakfast the following morning.  But it’s bad form to take the hat off too soon, even if it’s likely to ruin your special Christmas hair.  The pointy bits on the hats tell you which way up to wear them, by the way (points up).  Some people believe the hats are symbolic of crowns representing the three wise men, or something else – or it could be that they are just easy to make like that.  Anyway, hats are part of an older Christmas tradition.

Christmas table setting, Christmas crackers

Everything has a price and, generally speaking, the quality of cracker depends on how much you are prepared to pay.  I see from the ridiculously cheap box of family crackers I purchased the other day that we can look forward to liberating a variety of Really Useful Trinkets at crackertime, including a plastic paper clip, stretchy alien and an amusing imitation moustache (eye-wateringly held in place by means of small prongs stuck up each nostril). The Memsahib bought a slightly more luxurious cracker set, just in case we get visitors, which promises a shoe-horn, harmonica and – something I really have my eye on – a set of clockwork teeth.  Things you can hang on to for hours, or even longer.  More upmarket crackers contain correspondingly more expensive novelties – fireworks, cuff-links, silver-plated staplers…I’ve known people make their own crackers and insert miniature bottles of spirits or costume jewellery.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be tacky, or ostentatious; but it should be FUN.  As a teenager, I once got a plastic water pistol, which I carefully filled with borrowed alcohol and took to a party the following evening, sharing the contents with a good friend.  (Why? – because I was a teenager.)  Sadly, and inexplicably, many cracker novelties are left forlornly abandoned at the table.  However, my mother used to keep them for at least the next 12 months; actually, I’m pretty sure she had some left over from the Blitz.

The third customary ingredient inside a cracker is the joke – or, if you’re unlucky, a piece of tedious advice – which has to be read out loud.  The jokes, by tradition, have to be very bad.  Most years, the national newspapers publish a selection in the run up to Christmas.  Here are a few I’ve shamelessly copied from the Daily Telegraph (click the link for more – they seem to update them each year):

What do you call a bunch of chess players bragging about their games in a hotel lobby?
Chess nuts boasting in an open foyer.

How does good King Wenceslas like his pizzas?
Deep pan, crisp and even.

How did Scrooge win the football game?
The ghost of Christmas passed.

What did Adam say to his wife the day before Christmas?
It’s Christmas, Eve.

Why did Santa’s helper see the doctor?
Because he had a low “elf” esteem.

I know, I know; if you’ve never pulled a cracker, you’re now getting excited and want to know when you can get to them.  When I was a boy, crackers were pulled when the meal was over; other families pull them before they start eating.  It’s your choice.  Research suggests that crackers are meant to be all pulled at once, by people crossing arms around the table: but I have never seen it done that way and think cracker pulling should be a fairly random affair; just pick someone next to you or across the table – but do make sure no one is left out.

Where did Christmas crackers come from, anyway?

Origins of Christmas crackers, Peter KimptonDo not believe anyone that tells you that crackers were introduced to Britain by US servicemen during World War Two.  In fact, Christmas crackers were invented by an innovative London confectioner called Tom Smith in 1846.  Allegedly, on a business trip to Paris he found a French confectioner who wrapped his sweets – bonbons (small pieces of candy) – in tissue paper.  Tom thought that was a grand idea so, when he returned to England, he bought a stock of sugared almonds and sold them wrapped in tissue paper just in time for Christmas.  Next, he added a little love motto.  Gradually, the wrappers became more extravagant.  At some point, the sweet was replaced with a novelty.  Tom then thought it would be fun if the crackers could be pulled apart so that the contents would fall out in the gravy.  The story goes that he was inspired to add a small ‘bang’ to this process by watching a shower of sparks in a log fire and then spent two years developing the ‘snap’ inside the cracker, which emits the ‘crack’ when pulled.  The first crackers were called ‘cosaques’ – French for ‘Cossack’ – some think because the sound of the cracker ‘snap’ sounded like the whips of Cossacks, though how they come into the story, I just don’t know. However, the ‘snap’ was not invented by Tom Smith – it was in use as a type of firework fifty years or so before becoming an essential component of the Christmas cracker.  I wonder if it’s possible that the cracker got its name from the snap – as in the ‘cracking’ sound.

History of Christmas crackers, Peter KimptonIf you want to know the true story, you need to read Tom Smith’s Christmas Crackers – an illustrated history – by the world’s only cracker historian, Peter Kimpton.  Peter’s revised second edition – Christmas Crackers – Tom Smith’s magical invention – is available from his website, the King of Crackers.

Sadly, Tom Smith died in 1869 aged just 46.  But the business was taken over by his three sons, and thrived.  Walter Smith introduced the idea of paper hats and, gradually, the love mottoes were replaced with jokes.  In London’s Finsbury Square, where the company moved having outgrown Tom’s original premises in Goswell Road, his sons Thomas and Walter erected a drinking fountain in memory of their mother.  Tom Smith & Co produced exotic and exclusive crackers with luxury gifts inside for the high-end market, as well as making crackers based on themes (for example, spinsters and bachelors!) and for special events.  The company was granted its first Royal Warrant in 1906.  I like the story Peter Kimpton tells on his website, of a British Tommy writing home from the Western Front and saying that one of his pals had received a box of Tom Smith’s Crackers which he shared with his chums during the unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914.  In the 1920s, the company even produced a cracker – 18 feet long – for a London banquet, from which waitresses emerged, distributing gifts.  Sounds like my kind of lunch.

Christmas crackers, Christmas decorations

In 1953, Tom Smith & Co merged with Caley’s Crackers and everything moved to Norwich.  Today, the Tom Smith brand is owned by International Greetings based in South Wales.  I tried to find out how many crackers are pulled in the UK each year – one estimate I saw was 300 million, which would make more than four each (a trifle excessive, methinks).

I’m grateful to Peter Kimpton for his help – if you want to know more about crackers, visit his fascinating website at the King of Crackers. He also supplied the two older looking images for this article.

Earlier, we mentioned another type of Christmas cracker.  Students of native English will know that ‘cracker’ is an old slang term for ‘a good-looking female’.  In 1984, DJ Mike Read was pushing a single I’m a Little Christmas Cracker by an obscure British group (possibly from Bristol) called the Bouncing Czechs.  The flip side to the single contains the outrageously funny Ballad of Mary Lou, who has the misfortune to blow up whilst using the hair-dryer.  But the ‘A’ side, delivered with just the right amount of spritely and mildly salacious innuendo by the singer, Charlene Ducall, is a corker.  At one point, the question is posed: “Which one of you big strong boys wants to pull this little Christmas cracker?” Unfortunately, it disappeared without trace – along with the Bouncing Czechs.

The original version of the song was recorded in 1954 by Diana Decker, an American born actress and singer.  And, simply because the sound quality and visuals are fairly good, it is this version I leave you with.  Ms Decker certainly had an attractive giggle; enjoy your little Christmas cracker …


50 thoughts on “The custom and origins of Christmas crackers”

  1. I got this link from Derrick Knight Crackers are very traditional in Australia and are loved by most. Thanks for the “What did Adam say to his wife on the night before Christmas?”

  2. I wasn’t aware that America didn’t have Christmas crackers until someone mentioned it after buying my Christmas story-verse “The year Before Christmas” which has a dedication to one of our dogs “…who wasn’t afraid of Christmas crackers.”
    This is a very comprehensive explanation of them – I’ll pass it on.

  3. Thanks for the lesson…I’m in the US. I’ve been intrigued with Christmas Crackers but I never quite got how they’re used…I’ve even tried them at Thanksgiving and that was fun but again, not quite right. Are the crackers always set at each place setting? Are they ever used as gifts? Inquiring US minds want to know. 🙂

    1. Hiya. Yes, generally set out at place settings. I’ve never come across them used as gifts (but you never know, I suppose!). Some folk put them on trees as decorations. Is that OK? We aim to satisfy inquiring US minds 🙂

  4. Two years after the fact, I find this post! 🙂
    Crackers at Christmas are not a tradition on this side of the pond, but they are not unheard of, either. There are enough British and other Commonwealth Expats in the U.S. that the two major kitchenwares chains, Williams-Sonoma and Sur-la-Table, both stock Crackers amongst their Christmas offerings each year. Crackers aren’t that difficult to find in the U.S. if one knows where to look.

    The term “Cracker” is sometimes applied in a pejorative way to Caucasian males in the southern U.S. states by (ahem) non-Caucasians …

  5. Thanks, Mike! I love crackers! I just pulled out the Christmas crackers I bought last year on sale and now when we pop them I’ll have some intelligent conversation to bring to the table! Well, if anyone listens. We always do wear the hat (some, somewhat reluctantly!) I love the history and learned a lot — not the east of which is that two people pull on it! Who knew? Not us! This year we’ll have to be careful of choking objects! Thanks for sharing all the history with us! Hope you and Mrs. Britain have a fabulous holiday!

  6. Well, three cheers and thanks much for this one! I just pulled out our crackers today to take for holly jollying. Now I can actually offer some borderline intelligent conversation about them as we pull them apart. Like, I didn’t know that two people do it — I thought we all did our own. That would make it more fun! Love reading the history too — you tell it well!

    Merriest to you and Mrs. B!

  7. There are loads of them on shelves here in Canada at the moment, but as far as I know, it’s not a tradition so much as a random impulse to do something a little different now and again.

  8. I never heard of Christmas crackers until I was an adult, but when I was a child in Los Angeles, California, about 65 years ago I remember having them occasionally at birthday parties. All the mothers bought matching plates, cups, napkins, nut cups, and other things to decorate the table (pink for the girls, blue for the boys) at the local dime store — Woolworth’s or Kress’s. Among the things to be bought were crackers, although I never heard them called that. There was no joke or toy, just the noise and a hat. I had not thought of them for years! Thank you for the interesting article!

  9. Caryl Gonsalvez

    It was very interesting.
    I too love crackers!
    In fact I shared a box of crackers with my Scrabble group yesterday and it was real fun!

  10. Thanks for the Cracker History…Here in the US many people have no idea what they are…I love all things British and jumped at the chance to set a table with crackers…but I can never wait till Christmas and set our Thanksgiving table with the Crackers…very fun!

    1. Thank you very much! When I first wrote the post, the only Bouncing Czech version I could find wasn’t very good sound quality – this one is much better; perhaps I should update the article!

      1. My pleasure. It looks like your post and the song were uploaded within days of each other. You must have just missed it.

        You might do an addendum to the post, but I wouldn’t get rid of the original version of the song.

        Merry Christmas!

  11. I still have a bunch of wind-up santas from the crackers we bought a couple of years ago. They live in the toy drawer and, um, I don’t think they get played with but you never know.

  12. Very interesting Mike. Many years ago when I was the editor of a drama group newsletter I did a similar article. I love crackers, they sit tucked into the Christmas tree until Christmas day and then Boxing day. Merry Christmas.

  13. As there are many British expats in Brittany, it’s fairly easy to find Christmas crackers here. I was wondering if I should buy some this year as the only year I did, it helped everybody relax once we had stupid hats on… which is great as Christmas lunches in my family can be very tensed… Now that I read the post, I know what I need to buy tomorrow!

  14. Yes yes me too, I love Christmas crackers. They are a tradition from my childhood. I used to gather up all the little plastic gifts and hoard them. I think I’ll have to go out and get some before they are all gone. We could use them at our family Christmas Eve Breakfast!

  15. We like a cracker in our house. My grandmother always called them bon-bons which we thought quaint when we were young but of course that’s how they started out. My mother tells me that the hats in crackers when she was young were works of art not just tissue circlets. When they were unfolded there were hussar hats, lady’s bonnets etc.

  16. Blue Sky Scotland

    Interesting history. I would have thought fireworks in a cracker indoors would be dangerous as the gifts inside can sometimes go right across a room when they are pulled apart. English folk singers The Unthanks did “A Very English Winter. by The Unthanks a couple of years ago. If it’s on again this festive period as a repeat it’s worth catching as it features old, sometimes pagan customs and winter celebrations throughout England that have somehow survived to the present day. Best thing that was on telly over the festive period that year I watched it…

  17. Fascinating! I’ve just realised we don’t have any crackers yet this year. I have a little box of ‘bits and bobs’ like elastic bands and etc and in there are various jokes and plastic favours out of crackers over the years:)

  18. Although I have yet to spend Christmas in Yorkshire, through my family there I have introduced Christmas Crackers to my German family. Now they all know and love them – yes, even the bad jokes – and don’t want to have Christmas without them anymore. Of course, they are not easy to come by in German shops, but that’s what the internet is for.

  19. Hi Mike – great fully detailed summary .. we had 80 Christmas Crackers last night – quite good ones … the front of our hats had gold, the back – green tissue! They are all beguiling in their Christmas wrappers – so colourful … love the jokes – I may pinch the Good King Wenceslas one for my GKW post … acknowledgements forthcoming!

    The Tom Smith story is a fascinating one … ties in so well with Victorian England .. cheers Hilary

  20. I love Christmas crackers! It tickles me how EVERYONE wears the paper crowns, even the men!
    This is one of my favorite jokes…Where does Queen Victoria keep her armies?
    Up her sleevies! HAHA!

  21. Well, I remember pulling crackers in my childhood, about 5 decades ago. We also listened to the Queen’s Speech, or at least had to be quiet while my mother listened!

  22. At this old house we have adopted the Christmas Cracker tradition and enjoy it a lot. We enjoy the crackers at our Christmas breakfast. The cheesier the jokes the better! We all wore our Christmas crowns when we took a walk about the neighborhood after breakfast and we took a selfie which is the photo I’m including in our Christmas cards this year. Thanks for the history. I’ll share it with our adult kids at Christmas…

  23. A very interesting post Mike, thanks.
    You can never have too many crackers in the house at Christmas … we always make sure there are plenty for the New Year period too!

    The cornier the jokes the better!!!

    Hope your Christmas preparations are going well.

    All the best Jan

  24. We’ve had Christmas crackers a time or too and always enjoyed them, though the jokes weren’t very good/bad.

  25. I think Christmas crackers are a wonderful tradition. I think i first heard about them in the old movie Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. We’ve used them the past few years and although the toys are lame, like our Cracker Jack toys are lame, the jokes are always reliably lame as well, which is another great tradition. 🙂

A Bit About Britain welcomes visitors. What do you think?

Scroll to Top