Christmas Crackers« Previous Article Next Article »
To people of a certain age, Christmas really kicked off when John Noakes or Peter Purves reached for the coat hangers and dusted down the tinsel.
It was time to put together the Blue Peter advent crown. With dexterity only apparent in experienced practitioners of sticky back plastic, a thing of beauty was created and each of the candles was lit in turn on the Sundays leading up to Christmas.
Advent calendars first appeared in Germany in the early years of the last century, with the compartments displaying religious imagery. Capitalism and changing tastes have now reinvented this tradition as a marketing activity for chocolate companies, ever ready to exploit children's excitement at the approaching celebrations.
The weeks running up to Christmas are also a time to remember not to forget sending cards to people you see every day, others who lived next door many years ago and odd relatives, the names of whom, let alone your relationship, you barely remember.
You won't be surprised to hear that greetings cards are another German innovation, but the
British can lay claim to the Christmas Card. Children made cards containing poems to send to to their families at Christmas in the early 1700s and then in 1843 the V&A's first director, Sir Henry Cole, commissioned a batch of cards featuring a family having a good time and wishing everyone a 'Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year'.
The 2,050 cards sold that year has now risen to the 750 million we currently send, although this figure is dropping because of e-cards, Facebook and new methods of communication. If you happen to find one of Cole's first cards, keep hold of it, an example sold not so long ago for £22,500.
Christmas Crackers, The Innovation
Another 1840s innovation was the Christmas Cracker. For adults sitting around the dinner table, wearing ridiculous paper hats, there's no more natural thing to do than pull a cracker to reveal a bad joke and plastic toy. And, even after all this time, why do the manufacturers still make it so difficult to get the bang to go off at the same time as securing the largest portion of exploded cracker?
Attributed to a Thomas Smith in 1847, the cracker was an early form of modern day advent
calendar type marketing. Mr Smith thought it was a great idea to boost sweet sales by wrapping them up and then creating the 'crack' with something called 'silver fulminate'. It was then down to his son to introduce the paper hats and small gifts.
Now over 150 years later, market research takes place to discover which make of cracker has the loudest bang, firms compete with each other to write the lamest joke and now and again, probably in the more expensive ones, you might just find something that is useful.
Christmas decorations have assumed enormous importance over the years. Not content with a few streamers, and a tree festooned with lights, baubles and chocolates to brighten up the maganolia paintwork, people now attempt to derail the National Grid by creating enormous light displays covering every inch of their homes.
The Christmas Tree has been transformed into a decoration in itself with the development of LEDs and fibre optics. Another German import (you could have guessed), and with origins going back at least 600 years to the Brotherhood of Blackheads (you couldn't make that one up), it was a very noble tradition introduced into England by George III's wife Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.
They didn't really catch on until popularised by Prince Albert, who was of course also German, in the 1840s. Traditionally evergreen to represent continuing life in the midst of winter, they shouldn't be decorated until Christmas Eve and bad luck can be avoided by taking them to the recycling depot by Twelfth Night.
There are major problems with these last two traditions - try telling your children that they can't have any chocolates off the tree until Christmas Eve, and aren't you just sick and tired by Boxing Day of having to hoover up all those needles off the carpet?