Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The first tale of Christmas: Crackers 

Over a decade ago, I went with my morris dance team to perform at the Christmas bazaar held by the Order of the British Empire's Houston expat group. These English people, most our parents' and grandparents' ages, were amused and pleased to see a bunch of young Americans dancing the rather eccentric folk dances of their homeland; we were pleased to be dancing for people who knew what it was they were watching.

After dancing, we wandered through the bazaar, nibbling on Cornish pasties and looking at tea towels and cozies, porcelain figurines and other things British. We spotted a booth whose occupants were sporting brightly colored tissue paper crowns, and went to investigate. The booth was covered with boxes of brightly wrapped and beribboned cylinders, which a purple-crowned English matron explained were Christmas crackers.

An English tradition for over 100 years, the Christmas cracker is a small cardboard tube covered in a twist of wrapping paper. When the ends of the cracker are pulled apart, the paper tears, and a small strip of chemically-impregnated paper produces a sharp "pop." The cracker contains a small gift, a joke or riddle, and a bright tissue paper crown.

On a whim, I bought a couple of boxes, enough for everyone who would be at our family Christmas dinner that year. And they were a hit! Everyone seemed to like some part of the experience, whether the "pop" or the silly riddle or the paper crown. I bought more the following year; by the third year other members of the family were checking to see that we'd have them. We have had them every year since.

While everyone is happy to participate in the pulling of the crackers, the reading of the riddles and testing of the tiny toys (including, this year, a hot pink top that spins beautifully), there has been some variability in the willingness of participants to wear the paper crowns. Reluctance is found more often in the males of the family; the boys find them annoying, and the men... find them annoying, but in a different way. A willingness on the part of the women to swap yellow or green crowns for any pink ones that the men might pull from their crackers helps to quell resistance, and there is a period of at least a few minutes when everyone wears their crowns. It is, of course, the women who wish to document these moments photographically. My mother is the only woman in the following photographs because my sister and I, in our pink and purple crowns, were both taking pictures.

Show me the crowns!