Join Hazel Baker as she looks at how the British tradition of Christmas crackers; how they began and then developed to become the traditional event we repeat each year.
Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike.
What is a Christmas Cracker?
Christmas crackers are traditional Christmas favourite in Britain. They become commonplace over Christmas dinner and have been around for over 150 years. What’s a Christmas cracker for those asking overseas? Well, they’re festive table decorations that make a ‘bang’ sound when they’re pulled apart and contain a small gift of some sort, a paper hat, and a joke, even though there’s no guarantee that joke is funny.
There are a couple of versions of Christmas cracker pulling traditional in that I know of. The one I grew up with is that the person who ends up with the larger portion of the cracker when it’s pulled, wins the contents. What I have also experienced more recently was that, is that each person keeps the contents of their own cracker, regardless of who ends up with the largest section.
The world’s longest Christmas cracker measured 63.1 meters in length and 4 meters in diameter. For those diehard old schoolers that is 207 ft x 13 ft. And it was made by the parents of children at Ley Hill School and preschool Chesham Buckinghamshire in 2001. And what about that all exciting pull? The biggest Christmas cracker pull was an event organised by Honda in Tochigi, Japan in 2009, which involved an impressive 1,478 people.
When thinking about the Christmas traditions we have here in the UK, you may not connect London with the tradition of Christmas crackers. Well, let me introduce you to Tom Smith, a baker and confectioner, who is credited with the invention of the Christmas cracker.
Tom Smith was born in Newington, South London in 1823. By the age of seven, Tom was working as an apprentice to a baker and confectioner. Upon completing his apprenticeship and becoming a master himself, he opened his first shop in Goswell Road, Clerkenwell, where he made and sold wedding cakes and other confectionery.
It was on a trip to Paris where he first came across bonbons, almonds wrapped in a twist of pretty tissue paper. He came back to London and made and sold his own version, which became popular, particularly around Christmas time. To encourage year round sales, Smith would often include mottos or riddles within the wrapping. In 1847, he developed his design to incorporate a snapping or crackling sound, supposedly inspired from the crackle from logs in the fireplace. The challenge for him was to find a chemical that would make the bang, but would not be too dangerous and suitable for all members of the family to use.
After experimenting with different chemicals, some of which caused fires to break out, he discovered the right one, sodium nitrate. The old name for this was saltpetre, and its been called the mother of gunpowder. Only very small amounts of this explosive were used. Smith would stick the sodium nitrate mixture onto two thin strips of Cod. The ends of the strips were stuck together with this sodium nitrate in between, and then the strips when they’re pulled apart, well, the friction caused the sodium nitrate to explode making a crack and a spark. It’s all very exciting.
When reading around the subject, I had read that Tom had bought the explosive recipe from a local fireworks company, Brock’s fireworks. And that was founded in 1698 and it’s still in business today. How amazing. Tom Smith launched his new range of what he called bangs of expectation. Legend says that, one night, while he was sitting in front of his log fire, he became very interested by the sparks and cracks coming from the fire. Suddenly, he thought what a fun idea it would be, if his sweets and toys could be opened with a crack when their fancy wrappers were pulled in half. The story of him sitting by the fire, though it’s plausible for inspiration. And it also could have been quite easily the creation from the marketing department.
Also in the same year, 1847 is when he patented the cracker and the success of the cracker enabled the company to move to larger premises at 65, 67 & 69 Wilson Street, Finsbury Square, London.
Does your family have a name for Christmas crackers? When I was reading around, I found the nickname ‘cosaques’ and were thought to be named after the ‘Cossack’ supposedly from the cracking sound the Russian Cossack horsemen made with their whips.
What made Tom Smith and his Christmas crackers so popular?
The widespread industrialisation of the country had helped to form a new middle class. They had more disposable income than ever before, and more people were buying more things. And Christmas was the perfect excuse for an extra flutter. Britain’s or the increase in production of mass per Joyce toys, decorations, Christmas cards, and novelty items such as, yes indeed, the Christmas cracker.
Exciting large displays, such as horse drawn carriages and sleighs for the big shops in London, drew the crowds and of course got people talking.
And staying relevant and pleasing their customers was also key. The Tom Smith company built up a large range of themed crackers. There were over 100 designs. There was a series for bachelors and one for spinsters where the gifts included items such as false teeth and wedding rings. One dreads to think what else they contained. The price of the millionaires’ crackers reflected their name. And they contained a solid silver box with a piece of gold and silver jewellery inside.
If you’re looking for something to spend your hard earned money on this Christmas, then perhaps the Regal cracker from Fortnum and Masons is for you. It’s presented in an iconic Fortnum’s hamper. And each of the six Regal crackers contains not one, but oh yes, two redeemable vouchers for Fortnum’s hampers selection. Voucher options range from the wine cellar hamper and the collection hamper to the Piccadilly hamper and the Fort Mason hamper. A pack of six Regal Christmas crackers will set you back £5,000.
Getting back to Tom Smith, later on the company produced crackers for suffragettes, a series featuring war heroes, and even one for Charlie Chaplin fans. Crackers were not only made for Christmas. Oh no. They were also made for special occasions like coronations.
When Tom Smith died in 1869, his expanding cracker business was taken over by his three sons, Tom, Walter, and Henry. Walter introduced the hats into Christmas crackers. And he also travelled around the world looking for new ideas for gifts to put in them. The links between the Smith family and the company came to an end after the retirement of the three sons. Tom Smith was a brand that could be trusted.
The Islington Gazette wrote “Nothing is so calculated to excite the risibilities of every guest at the festive board, from the infant to the patriarch, as the Christmas cracker. Tom Smith is a splendid combination of artist and humorist. Each glittering envelope, with its hidden treasure, raises expectations which are rarely misplaced when the mystery is revealed. Success has been achieved because the purveyor of Christmastide merriment has discovered the art of being funny without being vulgar. The bare enumeration of the novelties of the great Finsbury House, with many of which the public have long been familiar, would fill a pamphlet.”
Tom Smith is a splendid combination of artists and humorous. Each glittering envelope with its hidden treasure raises expectations, which are rarely misplaced when the mystery is revealed. Success has been achieved because the purveyor of Christmas tide merriment has discovered the art of being funny without being vulgar. The bear enumeration of the novelties of the great friends rehouse with many of which the public have long been familiar would fill a pamphlet.
A reporter from the Globe 1894 thought that Tom Smith’s continual development of the invention played a role in the success of Tom Smith: “It would seem difficult to introduce any striking novelty into the manufacture of the Christmas cracker, but Tom Smith year by year contrives something fresh. This year the novelty is of a very distinct character, and likely to appeal irresistibly to the manufacturer’s large clientele. It is a “repeating’ cracker. Instead of one explosion, it on being properly pulled gives a succession of half a dozen explosions, “on the principle of the Gatling gun.” A Gatling gun was the first hand-driven machine gun). What other versions of Christmas crackers did Tom Smith offer? There were series containing musical instruments, “toys, jewellery, “luggage” (whatever that was) and other things, which in many cases will be found to amuse children, and interest their elders as well.”
The writing team at Tom Smith took their job seriously.
“into stereotyped grooves but by some means or other to impart freshness and novelty to their production. Upon the literary style of the crackers accompanying the crackers, Messrs. Smith are particularly to be praised.
Some ladies now make pretty songs,
And some make pretty nurses;
Some men are great at righting wrongs,
And some at writing verses….Messrs. Tom Smith are, however, careful to avoid the doggerel which seems to satisfy many of their competitors. Among the authors who have worked for them was the late Tom Hood, while Charles H. Ross, Ernest Warren, Howard Paul, and other accomplished versifiers are among their present contributors. In their effort to raise the general standard of the Christmas cracker, Messrs. Tom Smith deserve the support of all who agree with the wholesome theory that whatever is worth doing is worth doing in the best possible way, and colonial buyers when making out their indents will do well to remember that the best crackers are to be obtained from the works in Wilson Street, Finsbury.
The company of Tom Smith took their marketing seriously. Not only did they produce exquisite product brochures they created the ultimate advertising jingle (1890’s):
Tom Smith is the King of Crackers,
He stands alone and needs no bakers.
Hm. It looks better than it sounds.
By 1900, Tom Smith were selling more than 13 million crackers a year. Today the Tom Smith Group is a part of Napier Industries Ltd, based in Rickmansworth, and is still the largest manufacturer of Christmas crackers in the world. Even to this day, the Royal Family still has special crackers made by Tom Smith, oh and their wrapping paper.
What was wrong with having a sweet inside? Anyone? My guess is that we have Walter Smith to thank for this. Walter was one of Tom Smith’s three sons. Water took over the running of the company after his father’s death and developed the Christmas cracker into the version we are familiar with today. It was Walter who began to include the gifts and paper hats that then differentiated the Tom Smith cracker from that of their competitors.
What’s with the paper hats in Christmas Crackers?
The tradition of wearing festive headgear is believed to date back to Roman times and their Saturnalia celebrations, which also involved decorative headdresses. If that’s too far back to go, then perhaps they are supposed to be paper crowns (they do have pointy bits). During the Twelfth Night celebrations a King or Queen was appointed to look over the proceedings – could the paper crowns come from this tradition? Or are the crowns representative of the Three Wise men? Does anybody know? If you do, please get in touch and put me out of my misery. When did the sweet get replaced by an often disappointing gift?
When whizzing through the streets of Moorgate in between Corporate Christmas Tours, I was reminded of a Christmas-related story to an often overlooked Victorian drinking fountain on the South-East corner of Finsbury Square.
Having previously said it’s often overlooked, it most probably because it’s not in the most prominent position. Its original position was on the south west corner of Finsbury Square. Don’t believe me? Then check out the heart warming film The Salvage Gang filmed in 1958 where a group of children who have broken a saw whilst building a rabbit hutch wander round the streets of Islington doing odd jobs to earn money for a replacement. The children Pat, Ali, Freddie and Kim carry a metal framed bed over Tower Bridge, up through the City of London before taking a well-deserved drink from said fountain.
And if you like old films in London, then make sure you listen to Episode 15: Old Movies Filmed in London. And this is where we talk to feature writer, critic, and author Richard Luck. And we looked at some of the films filmed in London in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
On the water fountain are the following words: Erected and presented to the Parish of St Luke by Thomas and Walter Smith (Tom Smith and Co) to commemorate the life of their mother, Martha Smith, 1826 – 1898.
And yep, that’s our Tom Smith’s wife. And why is the fountain on Finsbury square? Well, of course that is where they had their factory. No longer there now sadly. All new buildings. But it is a nice reminder of the industrial heritage that London has. And so often forgets.
Christmas Cracker Jokes
What types of jokes are contained within Christmas crackers nowadays? I’m glad you asked….
What do you call Santa’s little helpers?
What type of Shoes does Santa wear when he travels on a train?
Who hides in the bakery at Christmas?
A mince spy!
If you are in London this Christmas, then why not come and join me on a Victorian Christmas walk, starting at St. Paul’s cathedral and we end at the magnificent Somerset house. You can book tickets online, londonguidedwalks.co.uk/christmas-events. And if you want to hear more about London’s Christmas history, then head to our previous episodes. Episode 74 Christmas in 1950s and 60s in London, Episode 35 A Tudor Christmas, and Episode 34 London’s old shops – food and drink.
This is our last episode for 2021. We have a jam pack season ready for you for 2022, they have been already recorded and edited, and we have some cracking new guests ready for the new year. And thank you for those who have left a voice message on the website, requesting particular items and themes to talk about.
I think we’ve managed to cover everybody’s request off, but there is space if there’s something that you want us to cover about person or a place or an historic event in London, then please leave us a voice message on our website. If you haven’t already, and it is the season of giving, then if you like what we do, please rate and review. Google podcasts, apple podcasts, whatever works for you, works for us. I really hope you have a fantastic Christmas, no matter what lies in store. And I will see you next year. That’s all for now.