Ask the Past: Christmas crackers

We always have Christmas crackers at our Christmas lunch, but nobody actually wants any of the useless plastic shit that comes in them, and I don't feel good about throwing it all away. I was thinking this year I might make my own Christmas crackers instead. Have you got any tips?

Just in case anyone reading this isn't actually clear on what a Christmas cracker is, I'll start with the very useful introduction from Harmsworth's Household Encyclopedia:

The old fashioned cracker is still a first favourite for the Christmas table. In its simplest form the cracker consists of two small pieces of cardboard with a cap at the junctions, so that when the two ends are pulled they separate with a slight explosion.

Harmsworth also includes a suggested list of cracker contents, none of which are the kind of plastic trinkets you tend to get these days.

This harmless firework is clad in a gay covering of paper enclosing usually a bonbon, a tiny toy, a cap, an apron, or some other article in coloured paper.

Harmsworth isn't super helpful about what a bonbon is, though, saying only that "The word is used without any very definite meaning for certain large sweetmeats, e.g. sugar plums." Other books, including A compendium of every-day knowledge (1914) define a bonbon as a Christmas cracker, so I guess you could consider stuffing your crackers with smaller crackers and keeping on going until they get too small to work with.

Fortunately, The Candy Cook Book (1917) provides a more exact definition.

The name bonbon is given commercially to a candy that is from one to one and one half inches in diameter, and has an outside coating of fondant, and a center of fondant or other candy, with or without nuts and fruit.

They suggest a range of flavourings for your bonbons, including rose, lavender, and wintergreen; and a range of fillings, including canned pineapple, grapes, and mint jelly. If none of those appeal, though, they also give this recipe for Mock Violets:

Popcorn, Violet color paste, Fondant, Angelica

Select large, open kernels of corn that will resemble the shape of violets. Color fondant a rich violet shade, melt it over hot water, and dip kernels of corn one at a time in the melted fondant, attach fine stems of angelica, place on paraffin paper, and leave until dry. Serve as a bonbon or use as a garnish on a bed of spun sugar around a mold of ice cream.

I have found several recipes for the firework part of the cracker, but before I go into detail, a cautionary tale from the 2 January 1931 edition of the Christchurch Star:


It is not easy for a youngster to talk when his finger is missing, but little Douglas Mott, aged ten, who had his little finger blown off by a large cracker on Christmas Day, said seriously to-day: “I’m glad there are to be no more crackers, and I’ll never touch one again.” Douglas lives at 17 Voelas Road, Lyttelton, and is expecting to go home to-day.

It was his first cracker for the year and his last, but he is sticking to it like a man, and reckons that as it is done and cannot be replaced, he is going to be happy.

With that out of the way, on to the explosives. The exploding bit of a Christmas cracker usually uses silver fulminate. A thousand and one formulas; the laboratory handbook for the experimenter (1920) gives the following formula for making it:

Silver fulminate is prepared by a process very similar to that for fulminate of mercury; but since its explosive properties are far more violent, it is not advisable to prepare so large a quantity. 10 grains of silver are dissolved at a gentle heat, in 70 minims of ordinary concentrated nitric acid (sp. gr. 1.42) and 50 minims of water. As soon as the silver is dissolved, the lamp is removed, and 200 minims of alcohol (sp. gr. 0.87) are added.

Once you've made your silver fulminate, they give these instructions for getting small bits of it to explode:

If a minute particle of the fulminate be placed upon a piece of quartz, and gently prest with the angle of another piece, it will explode with a flash and smart report.

You might feel like all of this is a bit of a hassle, though, with all the other stuff there is to do at Christmas, and in that case, perhaps you could consider a human Christmas cracker (either dressing as one yourself, or for preference nominating someone who never does their share of the cleaning up after Christmas lunch to do it). Fancy dresses described; or, What to wear at fancy balls (1887) describes the required costume as follows:

CHRISTMAS CRACKER. Grey tulle dress covered with various coloured crackers; necklace of bonbons; hair powdered ; an aigrette of crackers.

Hopefully whoever is wearing the clothes covered in explosives has been mindful of the dangers and is using low-powered ones. Best to keep an extinguishing grenade on hand just in case.

I'm sure that will help.

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