Forget the jokes – Christmas crackers were once sugary sweet dispensers

Pull on a Christmas cracker this year and you’ll likely receive a set of mini screwdrivers, a paper-thin party hat and a cheesy joke suggesting that the Father Christmas of the cat world is in fact named ‘Santa Paws’.

christmas crackers - photo by Liz Jones / Flickr

According to a University of Leicester Professor, if we were to step back in time Christmas crackers would have held a different purpose than to titillate audiences with a few minutes of entertainment while waiting for the yule log to be brought out of the kitchen after polishing off the turkey.

Invented by the Victorians in the 1840s, Christmas crackers were once full to the brim with colourful sweets that would erupt like a modern-day piñata when pulled. This novel approach was a new marketing campaign by a London sweet maker called Tom Smith whose earlier attempts to sell candy attractively wrapped, as in France, had met with limited success.

By placing sweets into tubes that could be pulled to create an exciting ‘bang’, Smith made Christmas crackers a surprise hit and they found their way onto dinner tables across the country – and later throughout the world.

In the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Christmas crackers have been recorded in our current sense since this time, and many other modern festive words and paraphernalia can be dated back to the Victorian period and beyond, in some cases developing very different meanings over time.

Christmas carols, for example, were originally ring-dances. Carol didn’t refer to songs sung at Christmas time until the early sixteenth century. Mince pies, made with minced meat have been recorded since the 1570s, but by the start of the seventeenth century, mince pie referred to small sweet pies eaten at Christmas.

The most surprising Christmas word, perhaps, is bauble – ‘a trinket’ or ‘an ornament’, which dates from around 1320 in the OED, always with negative connotations of showiness and worthlessness. Other senses of the word are all associated with children and jesters: the kind of people who might be impressed by shiny tat. More recently, bauble has lost its negative connotations, and is now usually used for the colourful ornaments hung on Christmas trees by entirely sensible adults.

Professor Julie Coleman Head of the University of Leicester’s School of English said: “Today’s Christmas comes wrapped in layers of words and customs from Christmas past.”

That these words are still familiar to us today shows how traditions have slowly changed over the centuries to form our current understanding of what makes the December period feel ‘Christmassy’. While Christmas was celebrated as early as the Anglo-Saxon period, the food and traditions associated with the holiday were very different.

Other Christmas words are recorded in the OED as follows:

  • Yule, the oldest word for Christmas, originally referred to the months of December or January, but by the tenth century clearly referred to the celebration of Christ’s birth. The corresponding word in Old Norse, jól, refers to a pre-Christian winter celebration lasting twelve days. Anglo-Saxons also referred to Christmas as yule-day, midwinter and midwinter day or tide.
  • Nativity was borrowed from French shortly after the Norman Conquest as a new name for Christmas. The OED’s earliest citation refers to a festivity held by King Henry at Windsor, which suggests that, like many French loans from this period, it was a bit posh.
  • Christmas appears in the form Christ’s mass in the twelfth century, and appears to have a single word by the beginning of the fifteenth century. The abbreviated Xmas, with the cross representing Christ, is first recorded in the middle of the eighteenth century. Other familiar forms include Crimbo (from 1928) and Crimble (from 1963).
  • Noel is also derived from a word relating to birth, ultimately from Latin natalis ‘relating to a birth or birthday’. From Latin it was used in French as a cry of celebration in response to a birth, and this use is found in English slightly before the meaning ‘Christmas’, but both date around 1400.
  • Boxing day is first recorded in 1833. It used to be the first weekday after Christmas, on which servants received their Christmas box (originally a clay box containing money, and later the money itself). The original OED editors appear to have disapproved of tipping at Christmas, defining Christmas box as “usually confined to gratuities given to those who are supposed to have a vague claim upon the donor for services rendered to him as one of the general public by whom they are employed and paid, or as a customer of their legal employer; the undefined theory being that as they have done offices for this person, for which he has not directly paid them, some direct acknowledgement is becoming at Christmas”.
  • The toast wassail ‘be hail (healthy)’ became associated with Christmas from the fourteenth century, referring to spiced wine and customs associated with it.
  • The red-coated present-bearer has been known by a variety of names in English: Father Christmas (1658), Santa Claus (1773), Kriss Kringle (1830), and Santa (1913).
  • Baby-cake is a cake shaped like a baby that was eaten at Christmas from the seventeenth century.
  • Christmas tree is first recorded from 1835: although English people were following the German tradition in decorating trees at Christmas before this (since at least 1789), it was several decades before they were given an English name.
  • What would a Christmas tree be without fairy lights? When it was first used, in the early eighteenth century, fairy light referred to will-o-the-wisps: phosphorescent lights produced by marshy ground. In the early nineteenth century, candles stood in for fairy lights in a garden, and by the middle of the nineteenth century candle fairy lights were a familiar sight in Christmas trees. There is nothing so Christmassy as a blazing fir tree! In the First World Warvery lights were flares named after their inventor, Edward Very. Many slang terms from the trenches downplay the fear and danger of the war, so it is entirely characteristic that soldiers called them fairy lights.
  • Stockings have had special associations with Christmas since 1853.
  • Advent calendar dates from 1867.
  • The Christmas pantomime is another Victorian invention, building on other types of theatrical performance called by the same name since the early seventeenth century. The word consists of two roots, ultimately from Greek: panto- ‘all’ and mime ‘a farcical drama’.
  • Tinsel originally referred to a cloth interwoven with metallic thread to create a sparkling effect. This sense is recorded in the OED from 1527, but our current sense either wasn’t known to OED-editors in 1912 – when the entry was last updated – or wasn’t considered frequent enough to merit recording.

Click here to learn more about Victorian Christmas

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