Chatting to several other HOLer friends from non-cracker loving nations, I realised it might be an idea to provide a bit of cultural translation so that this magical Hogwarts tradition could be appreciated in all its glory.
“Harry pulled a wizard cracker with Fred and it didn’t just bang, it went off with a blast like a cannon and engulfed them all in a cloud of blue smoke, while from the inside exploded a rear-admiral’s hat and several live, white mice.”
Aside from the excellent food, Cribbage’s Wizarding Crackers would be my favourite part of the Hogwarts Christmas feast (after all, who doesn’t like silly hats, loud noises and above all, free gifts?). They’re an idealised version of a tradition that’s been part of Britain’s festivities (and those of several other countries) for years: as essential as turkey, tinsel and holly. It only occurred to me that Christmas crackers might not be a globally recognised concept when Maxim asked me for my opinion on a story where crackers played a pivotal role and I had to give him a quick tutorial on how you actually open one. Chatting to several other HOLer friends from non-cracker loving nations, I realised it might be an idea to provide a bit of cultural translation so that this magical Hogwarts tradition could be appreciated in all its glory.
For those who’ve never encountered a Christmas cracker, let me first begin by saying that they are not the same as ‘firecrackers’ (small fireworks), an understandable assumption I’ve seen made several times on the internet. They are highly decorative cardboard tubes with twisted ends that look a bit like huge sweets. They are laid at each person’s place on the Christmas table. You open one by offering one end to someone else and tugging as hard as you can (you always ‘pull’ a cracker rather than ‘open’ or ‘use’ one). There’s a tiny explosion (the ‘crack’, caused by friction on tiny strips of paper impregnated with certain chemicals) and the cracker breaks unevenly in half. You then have to spend a frantic thirty seconds working out which end holds the treasure; the answer is often ‘neither’ as cracker prizes have a habit of flying out in all directions and only turning up hours later when someone notices them under their chair.
Prizes? Yes. As Harry states in Philosopher’s Stone, muggle crackers also have prizes and hats inside: ‘These fantastic crackers were nothing like the feeble Muggle ones the Dursleys usually bought, with their little plastic toys and their flimsy paper hats’. While not always plastic toys, cracker prizes are notorious for being cheaply made, very easily broken and questionably useful. Over the years, I’ve collected keyrings, dice, bottle openers, nail files, puzzles, rubber balls, tiny picture frames and enough packs of miniature playing cards to build a full size house. Those ‘flimsy paper hats’ are tissue paper crowns that come folded up: I tried to work out where this idea originated from but each source I checked had a different take on it. One thing is for sure though, no matter the size of your head, they will slip down over your eyes seconds after you put them on. The last thing you get inside a cracker is a small scrap of paper with a ‘wise’ saying or very bad joke on it (an example would be ‘what did one snowman say to another?’ ‘Can you smell carrots?’).
This tradition is a bit bizarre, it has to be said. The widely recognised origin for crackers is that they were designed by a London based sweet manufacturer called Tom Smith in 1847. He first incorporated the paper mottos into his bonbon wrappers and then, supposedly inspired by the sound of a log crackling on the fire, introduced the ‘cracker’ mechanism (necessitating making the crackers much larger). Smith originally called his product by several other names but cracker soon became the publically recognised term. In the years that followed, toys and prizes replaced the sweets and many rival companies sprang up, all manufacturing their own take on the idea. Crackers were made to commemorate special occasions and also specifically designed to appeal to different markets and budgets (think luxury jewellery for the particularly wealthy)
Crackers have stayed largely true to these Victorian origins. However, in recent years, environmental concerns have meant people are looking for a more sustainable way to enjoy the festive treat. Crackers made from recycled materials, plastic free crackers and even sturdy, reusable crackers have all hit the market. The prizes inside are also changing to meet modern tastes. For instance, this year it’s possible to buy ‘cheese’ crackers which contain 2 portions of premium cheese, a tiny jar of chutney and a pack of savoury biscuits to eat them with (yes, crackers inside crackers).
With these sorts of developments, muggle crackers seem to be inching slightly closer to the wizarding ideal. I’m not going to lie, I would absolutely love to find a chess board or rear admirals hat in place of my paper crown and nail clippers this year. However, I think part of the crackers charm is that we know full well going in that the gifts and jokes are going to be as wimpy as the crack itself. We accept that and we love them anyway, in spite (or because) of their foibles.
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