Let me start with a story. A couple of years ago I was interviewing a singer in an American band over the phone, and I asked what his plan for the holidays might be. We talked for a little while about the specifics of his family Christmas and I mentioned crackers, which turned out to be a festive phenomenon he hadn’t heard of.

And it was only once I had to explain, using just words, what a Christmas cracker is, that I realized it’s rather odd. It’s such a central part of the British Christmas, even to people that don’t bother with them, that to meet someone who didn’t even know what such a thing could be was a little unsettling. And to make matters worse, I then had to visually describe something I’m so familiar with that I’d never had to think of a descriptive word for it before. Other things might look like Christmas crackers, but what to Christmas crackers look like?

Thankfully we don’t have to go through that palaver again here. Look up, there’s a picture. That’s a Christmas cracker, and another one, having a cuddle. As you can see, a cracker is a three-chambered cardboard tube, wrapped in brightly colored paper that is twisted to connect the two outer chambers to the middle. Running through the middle is a cardboard strip with a tiny (and I mean REALLY tiny) explosive charge on it, so that if you take one of the outer chambers in your hand, and someone else takes the other outer chamber, you can have a small tug of war, until the cracker breaks, and the explosive makes a mild bang.

But that’s not the end of the fun, oh no sirree Bob. Inside the center chamber is a world of delights.

Well, I say delights. What I really mean is there’s a paper crown, a joke or proverb, and a small toy. If you buy cheap crackers, it’ll be a plastic moustache, or a tiny comb, or this odd heat-sensitive plastic fish that claims to be able to read your personality if you allow it to curl up on your palm. Expensive crackers will have a little metal puzzle or possibly a pretty hairgrip. After a morning spent opening presents you’d think there’d be precious little excitement left in such a thing, but plenty of Christmas arguments are started over who gets to keep the cracker toy.

Then, you put the paper crown on your head. This wearing of a special hat is part of a tradition that goes back to Roman times, and the Saturnalia celebrations, which also involved decorative headgear. Not that there’s any solemnity to the occasion, you put on your paper hat, and then a little while later, embarrassed, you take it off again.

Which just leaves the jokes. These, no matter how expensive the cracker, are never any good. They’re not supposed to be. They’re usually some incredibly bland piece of punnery which is designed to induce massed groans around the dinner table. Critiquing bad comedy is a very British Christmas thing. As an example of how bad they are (and easy to come up with), I’ve made some up:

Q: Which X Factor judge is the best at spelling?
A: Simon Vowel

Q: Which superhero duo give the best-wrapped Christmas presents?
A: Batman and Ribbon.

Q: How does the Doctor put on his boots?
A: With a sonic shoe-driver.

See? Awful.

So you’ve got your crackers, now you need to pull them. Opinion is sharply divided as to how this should be achieved. Some families opt for an Auld Lang Syne approach, where arms are crossed, and you make a circle of crackers which are all pulled at once. Some prefer to dole out one cracker each, with the owner choosing who gets to pull it with them. But however you do it, the person left with the central chamber after the cracker is pulled gets to keep the stuff inside.

This can also cause arguments, but isn’t that the spirit of Christmas?

If you’re interested in getting some crackers in the US, you can buy them in the BBC America Shop and there are also some tips over at Anglotopia. But be warned, they’re classed as fireworks in some states.

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By Fraser McAlpine