Here in America many of our Christmas habits descend from English…and Old English…and pre-English traditions. Yet among the mistletoe and fruitcake and holly boughs, one key element of English gifts is clearly lacking: explosive gifts.
The people of the UK have this gift-style thing called “a cracker.” Now in America, a cracker is either a flat disk of inedible starch meant to be fed to a parrot or a racial insult aimed at poor southern whites, yet in England it is something rather more magical and surreal. The cracker, or more properly the “bon-bon”, is a paper or cardboard tube painted with a low-lever explosive like silver fulminate (!) and covered in a twisted wrapper of festive paper. The end-result looks rather like a giant fake tootsie roll (insomuch as tootsie rolls have any valid realness of their own). Two holiday celebrants grasp the respective ends of the cracker and pull, whereupon the silver fulminate detonates with a pop. like a wishbone, the cracker splits unevenly and one party is left with the gift, whereas the other has nothing. So not only does this thing sound dangerous, it also sounds like it would cause lots of friendship-ending fights.
However the purpose of this blog post is not to judge the British for their toys (indeed, this cracker business is starting to reveal where some of the cantankerous, alarming, or over-the-top elements of America’s national character come from). Instead we wish to concentrate on a particular aspect of the gifts inside the cracker. In addition to candies and little toys, crackers traditionally contain tissue paper crowns which are worn during holiday feasts. I have no idea what the symbolism of this is (at Christmas, everyone is king for a moment), but I really like the hats! I wish there were some real vulture hats like in Harry Potter–that would be even more magical!