Like the Christmas card, the Christmas cracker was also a London invention. In fact these two great Christmas traditions came about at much the same time. The first Christmas card dates back to 1843, while we know that the first Christmas cracker was invented sometime between 1845 and 1850.
From France to England
Sweet-maker Tom Smith thought that London could be a good market for the bonbons or small sweets commonly sold in France. Smith initially sold these wrapped in decorative paper, which made them pretty, convenient to carry and an attractive gift (rather like boxes of chocolates today). Unfortunately, sales of these sweets did not take off the way Smith had hoped, so he tried adding a motto or joke to the pack. The story goes that many of these mottos were “love messages” to encourage gentlemen to buy the sweets for the special lady in their life. If this is true, then it serves to prove the point that in many ways advertising and marketing has been much the same throughout history. Unfortunately this marketing tactic didn’t revive sales the way Smith had hoped, so he had to come up with another idea.
A spark of inspiration
According to legend, Tom Smith was sitting by his fire, wondering what he could do to improve his sales, when he suddenly became aware of the sound of logs cracking and it gave him the idea of putting his sweets and mottos into a package which could be pulled apart with a bang, for extra entertainment. This meant making the sweet wrapping bigger so that it could incorporate the new “bang” mechanism and this led to the cracker shape we now know and love. Somewhat ironically, the popularity of crackers was such that perishable sweets had to be replaced with longer-lasting trinkets for ease of storage and transport. The hats were a later addition, the idea came from Tom Smith’s son Walter. The official reason given was to represent the crowns worn by the three wise men. The unofficial reason was to help to differentiate the crackers made by the Smith family from the crackers made by rival companies. Both of these changes required the cracker design to be made even stronger.
Standing the test of time
Today, over 150 years later, pulling a Christmas cracker (or several) is still as popular as it was back when they were invented. In fact, it was only in 2015 that London set a new cracker-related Guinness world record. The Harrodian School in Barnes created the longest Christmas cracker pulling chain in the world, which consisted of 1081 people. Just like Christmas cards (and indeed our leaflets), the famous switch to digital has done nothing to reduce their popularity. People still love to have something they can hold in their hands and it’s all the better if it’s something simple which can be enjoyed by young and old alike. We can easily see the Christmas cracker lasting another 150 years and more - just like old fashioned leaflet delivery in London.