Love notes, engagement rings, and traces of colonialism at Christmas dinner.
On a cold and dreary Melbourne afternoon, I cross-stitched red, green and gold baubles onto a hand towel that was to be a Christmas gift. A Netflix Christmas movie was playing in the background. A burning candle on the dining table drifted a tantalising smell of ‘Christmas Pudding’ across the lounge. A scene on the television gained my attention. On the screen was a middle-aged, white American couple going through the motions on their first dinner date. At some point during their meal, the man handed a Christmas cracker to the woman and explained that it was a ‘British tradition’. Then, awkwardly, the man and woman took one cracker for themselves. I watched with bemused interest as they pulled the ends against themselves-chests, straining and elbows poking at various angles- as they tried to make the cracker, or bonbon as they are also known, pop.
I watched the scene with interest. A Christmas cracker is a cylinder-shaped cardboard tube containing a paper stick that ‘pops’ from the friction of being pulled, at which point the tube spills out a paper crown, a piece of paper with a joke, and a trinket. The movie scene was so very different from my Christmas crackers experience. These items were an unquestionable norm of the dining table or picnic rug at Christmas in south-eastern Australia during the 1980s. There are varying techniques for gaining the treats within. Sometimes sharing with a competitive cousin meant all my strength was used. Other times, with grandparents on the other end of the cracker, I would pull gently and wait to receive the trinket no matter who won, but I would never have the crown. In recent decades, I have taught my children how to pull with a sharp tug to ensure the pop is clear. Watching this American movie made me wonder what the origins of Christmas crackers were and when they came to Australia?
Source: Decorative box lid for Tom Smith’s Christmas Crackers from 1911.Unknown artist in 1911, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Focused on these questions, I commenced research for this article. It is a delightful research experience, opening multiple tabs in my browser for all the catalogues of Australian State libraries and Trove on my home computer and then searching through their collections. As a member of the State Library of Victoria (SLV), I quickly learned logging in gave me more access to journals and databases. I was denied access to South Australian records due to my lack of membership, so I made a note to become a member of numerous State libraries in the future, for each carried different materials. For instance, I found Western Australia’s State library has a spectacular photography collection, some of which is digitised and open access. Yet, my limited research time frame prevented me from using images in this post as gaining copyright permissions takes more time than I had. The catalogues and the searches were easy to use; I ran searches for ‘Christmas’, ‘Yuletide’, ‘cracker’ and ‘bonbon’. I ran preliminary online searches and decided my research date range was 1840 to 1922. What delights or frustrations would the following eight hours bring?
The creation of Christmas crackers in Britain is attributed to Tom Smith. As a wedding cake and confectionary store owner, Smith provided wedding cake decorations to his clients. During his travels to France, Smith was inspired by the sights and smells of the local sweet treats known as bonbons-sugared almonds wrapped in tissue paper. Returning to London, he made ‘cosaque’ for clients. The name was a tribute to the crack of a soldier’s gun. Cosaques were originally intended to appear on a wedding cake as adornment. Soon though, Smith adapted the design to incorporate a written love motto with the candied almonds. He patented the design in 1847, and in approximately three years, he changed the name to crackers. Gradually, these celebratory items became more Christmas-orientated, with toys and jokes replacing the almonds and love mottos. What of the pop? Was it inspired by the crack of a champagne cork? Eggs into the bowl for a pudding? The fall of a tree destined to be decorated? No, no and no. It seems Smith was again inspired by the world around him. Having enjoyed the crackle of a log on the fire on a cool night, Smith added a popper to the bonbon. His sons, who inherited the family business after Smith’s death, included a paper crown and trinkets. The company became well-known for employing artists, writers, editors, and copy printers to ensure high-grade products were created.
‘In what tone should a ghost always speak? A tombstone.’‘Christmas Cracker’, The Maitland Daily Mercury, 1898
With the inclusion of toys and jokes, crackers quickly became a part of children’s parties. The National Trust Museum of Childhood, London, visual records show crackers that aren’t that different from what you may see today on the table at Christmas time. A cylindrical item covered in tissue paper with a sticker in the middle. The general popularity of the item was evident as in 1849, the satirical and jokey magazine Punch ran a story, in which it was lamented that young girls were using their invitation to pull crackers to gain a young boy’s attention.
Source: A Cracker Bon-bon for Christmas Parties: Consisting of Christmas Pieces, for Private Representation, and Other Seasonable Matter, in Prose and Verse: by Robert B. Brough, Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, GALE|BYFAYG792369849.
There was some ambiguity around what exactly was a Christmas cracker in nineteenth-century Australian publications. In 1852, the term ‘Christmas cracker’ referred to any entertaining tidbit related to events around one’s domestic life. This usage is seen in the title page for A Cracker Bon-bon for Christmas Parties: Consisting of Christmas Pieces, for Private Representation, and Other Seasonable Matter, in Prose and Verse. Robert Brough’s book was filled with careful but amusing directions for families and groups to entertain themselves during the festive period. This booklet contains illustrations of performers, often characters with overly large heads and stick-thin legs, dramatic content and directions for their enjoyment.
By 1887 Australians were able to clearly define what Christmas crackers were. This answer appeared in an edited book by Garnet Walch and Nat Barnet. They used poetry to explain to readers what a Christmas cracker was:
Christmas Crackers! What are they?
Things that move to laughter.
Exactly so, so pull away
And see what follows after.
Quip, and crank, and jest, and fun,
Riddle, rhyme and rebus;
Games, and lilts and jovial fun,
To make you laugh like Phoebus.
In 1899 the romantic element of the Christmas crackers emerged in Australia. Syndicated news articles stated it was ‘not an uncommon thing for jewellery, at customers’ request, to be inserted in crackers’. In the State Library of Western Australia, in the E.L. Mitchell collection of photographs, there is a glorious black and white photograph showing crackers in use (see below). The question mark in the catalogue record indicates the date given as 1909 is under critique. Yet, titled ‘a party table’, the black and white image is richly detailed. The clear shot holds in its centre a laden table covered with a white cloth. My eye was first taken by the profusion of spring flowers–snowbells, daffodils, asparagus ferns, carnations– placed in multiple vases across the table. There is a multi-tiered white and silver cake. There, silver crackers were carefully positioned on the second layer. Surrounding the cake are crystal dishes and glasses scattered carefully through a table with gourmet desserts, trifles, jellies, creamed biscuits, and decanters of drinks. It is a table set for a wedding celebration, just as Smith originally intended.
Are joy, love, and celebration the totality of what Christmas crackers represent? Examining newspaper articles, magazines and artefacts from various Australian cultural institutions, I see another meaning attached to these celebratory items. One that is harder to discern when you’ve been raised in a white suburban household and think a cracker is nothing more than a table decoration. How did Christmas crackers, or bonbons, land on some Australian lunch and dinner tables during the festive season? They were delivered to Australia by British traders-colonisers. The introduction of these items to Australian consumers is credited to George Smith and Sons of Sydney, a confectioner, in 1867. Research in Trove reveals that crackers were also located in the British-colonised nations of South Africa, Ireland, Scotland, and Canada. Australian inventors later built prototypes of bon bon making machines to produce local products. Across these colonised spaces, the Empire remained a central feature. The Smith crackers clearly claimed sovereign connections. An image of Tom Smith’s Dainty Crackers, created between 1901-1910, shows a label that states such supposedly frivolous items were made ‘by appointment to their majesties the King and Queen’. This tie to the monarchy is reinforced by the presence of a paper crown in the cracker. In 1911, there were several “Coronation” designs on the market, with crackers made ‘in the Royal colors [sic], crimson and purple, with old gold ends; besides, each bears a medallion of the King or Queen’ and further souvenirs in the box. These are described as ‘miniature Coronation chairs, anointing spoons, busts and various other things in gilt’. While the other imagery has faded from use in Australia the paper crown persists.
Until I watched an American Christmas movie, I didn’t question why we have Christmas crackers in Australia, but I’m glad I did. Butler’s Hubibras stated, ‘ A little nonsense now and then Is relished by the wisest of men (sic)’. Certainly, but at the same time, eight hours in various online archives, libraries, and museums showed this woman that the meanings attached to crackers have evolved from a wedding favour to a Christmas table staple to a tradition that can facilitate discussions about Australia’s colonial past. And sometimes questioning ‘nonsense’ is important too.
Museums Victoria Collection
State Library of New South Wales
State Library of Victoria
State Library of South Australia
State Library of Queensland
State Library of Western Australia
(1924). The Australian woman’s mirror Retrieved December 12, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-543867541
(1920). Everyones Retrieved December 12, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-542944879
CHILD’S PARTIES: AND A REMONSTRANCE CONCERNING THEM. (1849, June 23). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 5. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article12902272
Christmas Crackers. (1898, December 17). The Maitland Daily Mercury (NSW : 1894 – 1939), p. 7. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article123627602
Rings in Christmas Crackers (1899, December 23). The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld. : 1872 – 1947), p. 5. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article173083321
CHRISTMAS CRACKERS. (1911, December 16). Leader (Melbourne, Vic. : 1862 – 1918, 1935), p. 51. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article198149439
MANUFACTURING CHRISTMAS CRACKERS. (1904, December 23). The Central Advocate (Balaklava, SA : 1903 – 1909), p. 4. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article207078857
THE MERRY PERIOD. (1908, December 26). Evening Journal (Adelaide, SA : 1869 – 1912), p. 7 (EXTRA LATE EDITION). Retrieved December 12, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article208650943
MONSTER CHRISTMAS CRACKERS. (1909, June 4). Glen Innes Examiner (NSW : 1908 – 1954), p. 7. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article180131929