Curious Questions: Why are Christmas cracker jokes so corny?

With the dust having settled on Christmas, there is only one question left to ponder: why are the jokes in crackers so intentionally bad? Martin Fone takes a look at the origin of the Christmas cracker to explain all.

Shaped like a sweet wrapping, it is a segmented cardboard tube enclosed in colourful paper. These days, it is regarded as an essential component of the Christmas dinner, enabling us to engage with a fellow diner in that curious ritual of pulling it apart. A satisfying small bang, the result of friction on two shock-sensitive, chemically impregnated areas on a thin cardboard strip, accompanies the sound of ripping paper. The person with the largest portion scoops the prize, usually a coloured paper hat, a small toy or object, and a corny joke.

When to pull a Christmas cracker is a matter of some debate. It must be galling for someone who has spent hours preparing the main course and choreographed its serving to perfection to see their guests letting the fruits of their labour grow tepid as they pull their crackers. Some etiquette experts suggest that the correct time to pull a cracker is either when the main course has been completed or after the dessert. Whilst this is eminently sensible, frankly, the main course would not taste the same without wearing a paper hat.

But what of the jokes? Originally manufacturers included poetry or sayings, but rib-ticklers were first included in Totem Tom-Tom crackers in the 1920s — more on those later — and by the 1930s they had replaced verses and mottos as a matter of course.

They are irredeemably corny and cringeworthy, guaranteed to provoke a chorus of groans from the assembled company.

But why? Why do they have to be so bad?

It is all down to the audience. The assembled company around a Christmas table is made up of all ages and sensibilities. What was needed was a joke that everybody would understand, would elicit a titter or groan, and not cause offence.

These strictures left the joke writer with little option but to craft plays on words and attempts at humour that even an easy-going sub-editor would be tempted to excise from a child’s joke book. Mind you, the quality of the romantic verses they replaced was not high; a theatre critic for the Westminster Gazette was moved, in 1906, to describe a particularly shoddy piece of drama as “not up to the standard of cracker poetry”.

You search in vain for pearls in a cracker. Once you’re past the age of 8, that is.

The origin of the cracker can be traced back to an idea brought back to London by sweet manufacturer Thomas Smith after a trip to Paris in 1847. He was intrigued by the Parisian bon-bon, a sugared almond wrapped in pretty tissue paper with a twist either side of the central section. This was something, he thought, that would pique the interest of his gentlemen customers looking for a little something to give to their lady friends, particularly in the Christmas season. Initially, his offering was a sugared almond with a love motto wrapped together in a central chamber with two twisted ends, but by 1849 the almond had given way to small gifts such as toys, trinkets or jewellery.

Whilst sales were encouraging, Smith was on the look-out for ways to make his product more appealing. The story goes that in the 1850s he became fascinated by the snap and crackle that his hearthside fire was making and wondered whether he could replicate that commonplace sound of a Victorian living room when the paper wrapping was torn apart. The sound of a small explosion would surely cause delight and amusement and make sales go with a bang.

After a period of development and experimentation, Smith launched, in 1861, what he called “Bangs of Expectation”, an early form of cracker. They were also known as cosaques, probably after the Russian Cossacks, encountered during the Crimean War and renowned for firing their rifles up in the air while riding their horses. At the same time, the basic cracker shape we would recognise today was established.

Although he took out a patent, Smith’s innovation soon attracted imitators, including another London ornamental sweet-maker, Gaudente Sparagapane. His company, established in 1846, a year before Smith’s, claimed in its advertising to be “the oldest makers of Christmas crackers in the United Kingdom”. Whether Sparagapane beat Smith to the draw or not, Smith is generally credited with inventing the cracker.

After Smith’s death in 1869, the business passed to his sons, Thomas Junior and Walter, who moved premises from Clerkenwell to 65-69 Wilson Street, near Finsbury Square. In March 1889 disaster struck when a fire broke out in the building, but within nine months it was back in business, employing, according to a contemporary newspaper report, 2,000 people including four hundred female workers, producing 112,000 boxes of crackers a year. As now, many of the gifts inside were imported from the Far East, although then from Japan rather than China.

Crackers were not just for Christmas. Tom Smith and Company introduced a range of themed crackers to celebrate major state occasions, military campaigns, and technological innovations such as the wireless. Crackers were made in support of the Suffragettes, ironically Sparagapane’s daughter, Maud Sennett was a leading light in the movement. Stage shows, and theatre and film stars also received the cracker treatment.

There were Charlie Chaplin themed crackers and perhaps the most extravagant was The Totem Cracker, launched in 1927, to cash in on the Totem Tom-Tom dance craze, spawned by the 1925 musical, Rose-Marie. For the sum 34 shillings you received a dozen crackers complete with Totem-Pole Girl headdresses, musical toys, imitation jewellery and jokes. Bizarrely, there were even crackers aimed at bachelors and spinsters, whose gifts included wedding rings and false teeth, a case of hope mixed with realism, perhaps.

Paper hats were introduced in the 1890s by Walter. Smith’s crackers even found royal favour, receiving their first Royal Warrant in 1906 from the then Prince of Wales. Now part of the Design Group, Thomas Smith’s company still produce crackers for the royal family. They have also left their mark on the city’s landscape. The fountain to be found in Finsbury Square was erected by the Smith brothers in memory of their mother, Martha. If you look closely at the pediment, there is something which looks suspiciously shaped like a cracker.

Is there a way to pull a cracker that guarantees you have the largest portion? According to defence technology experts, QinetiQ, the key is to ensure that the end you have grasped is lower than the other person’s so that it is tilting towards you, use a firm, two-handed grip, pull the cracker slowly and steadily, and do not twist it. Let us know if it works.

Whether that technique was deployed by any of the 1,478 people who participated in the world’s largest ever Christmas cracker pull, organised by Honda Japan at the Tochigi Proving Ground on October 18, 2009, I cannot say. Pulling the cracker made by the parents of children at Ley Hill School and Pre-school in Chesham on December 20, 2001 would have presented a challenge. At 63.1 metres in length and 4 metres in diameter, it holds the record for the world’s longest cracker. It must have made quite a bang.