Paul Kerensa explores an explosion in the Victorian
LONDON IN THE 1840S SAW CHRISTMAS EXPLODE. 1843 alone gave us
Christmas cards, A Christmas Carol and O Come All Ye Faithful.
Millions were descending on the capital for work, so Christmas now
had a new sense of returning home. Workers took new festive customs
with them; London lit each fuse, while the country stood back to
see if it went bang.
For the cracker, we thank London confectioner Tom Smith. On
holiday in Paris in the 1840s, Smith admired the packaging of some
sugared almond bonbons, delicately wrapped in wax paper, twisted at
each end. Wrapping food - how very French. Smith's English
upper-class clientele were always on the look-out for culinary
fashion, so he combined these French fancies with mottos from
Chinese fortune cookies, selling them at his shop on Clerkenwell's
Smith's bonbons were a hit among party hosts. They were so
popular each December, Smith spent the other eleven months
concocting new twists on the old formula. His customers couldn't
wait to see this year's innovation, from trinkets to new patterns.
By rebranding them as party essentials, Smith made multiple sales
In need of another redesign, Smith was sitting by the fire one
night, when he heard the fi ery crackle of a log burning. Eureka!
Next Christmas, he added what he called 'bangs of expectation'. By
the 1870s they were called 'cosaques', named for the cracking sound
like the whips of Cossack horsemen. A decade later, they became
As for the mottos, what began as love verses became New Year
predictions, then jokes in the twentieth century. As long ago as
ancient Rome, little messages were given at midwinter festivals -
so this, like many Christmas innovations, was just a twist on an
By the time Smith's sons took over the business, 13 million
crackers left the factory each year. Walter Smith thought to add
paper hats, like the mock crowns worn at Twelfth Night parties.
This celebration was on the wane, but the hat stayed, yet another
cracker insert. With no room for the bonbons, the Smith factory -
originally a confectioner's - removed the confectionery.
How that toilet roll cardboard got in there, who can say...
Extract revised by the author, from Hark! The Biography of
Christmas by Paul Kerensa (published by Lion Hudson in Sept 2017,