The boom, boom
Crackers contain jokes that are often less than amusing. Manchester University's Bob Nicholson suggests you can blame the Americans and the Victorians for that, as crackers were being invented just as the UK was falling for the short, sharp wit of the Yankees:
According to the researcher, the craze for Yankee jokes, which was at its height between the 1870s and 1890s, side-lined the less risqué home-grown humour.
British newspapers printed thousands of US jokes, helping to kick-start our long standing love affair with American culture.
Mark Twain and other US humourists packed out British theatres, and their novels filled the nation’s bookstalls.
And American joke books were also popular – particularly at Christmas.
“American humour was characterised by sharp one-liners which are found in today’s Christmas crackers,” he said.
“While British jokes would often be clumsy and over-explain the punchline, American gags had a more recognisably modern rhythm - quick set up followed immediately by a punchline.
“American jokes were also edgier than British ones and tackled subjects – such as death and divorce – that were still taboo for some Victorians.”
Better jokes through technology?
Back in 2010, Aberdeen University and Debenhams came together to see if they could squeeze any of the last humanity out of cracker jokes and just let robots do it all:
Joke-generating computer software developed by Aberdeen scientists is helping Debenhams put the festive spirit into their Christmas crackers this year.
The high street store has commissioned the University’s Computing Science Department to come up with some gags just for them, to be considered for inclusion in their crackers.
Debenhams spokesman Ed Watson said: “It is often said that computers do things more efficiently than humans, but it seemed like humour was the one area computers would never grasp — until now.
“The riddle-style funnies the new software creates are ideal for Christmas crackers and we hope to work with the University to include them in ours in the future.”
The computer has since found work writing Andrew Neil's scripts for This Week.
Why are they crackers?
Leicester University's Julie Coleman supplies the not-unsurprising information that the snap sound is why Tom Smith's sweet packets were given the name "crackers":
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.
But why do they bang?
Our own James Bruce fielded this one for OpenLearn:
Attached to the side of the tube inside the cracker is a strip of paper. This paper has been treated with a tiny amount of gunpowder – an explosive mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulphur.
But there’s so little gunpowder that it doesn’t need much heat to set it off. When both ends of the cracker are pulled, the force generates a friction between the paper and the tube, which causes enough heat to set the gunpowder off.
How did Christmas Crackers lead to Wikipedia being cited in court?
Back in 2007, a company called Wilton Industries was in a dispute with the United States Court of International Trade over the tariffs due on certain goods. (Never let it be said we don't know how to write a light-hearted Christmas article here at OpenLearn). At issue, in part, was whether the items Wilton had imported from China counted as "festive articles", or due a more punitive import rate. The US believed that crackers weren't, legally, festive items because they weren't purely decorative. Wilton countered by firing up Wikipedia:
Indeed, the Explanatory Notes specifically list "Christmas crackers" as one examplar of "festive articles," with no implication that the crackers must be used to "decorate" a household or otherwise "displayed" before being pulled. See Explanatory Notes, Heading 9505, HTSUS (providing for classification of "Christmas crackers" as "festive articles" under heading 9505); Wikipedia, Christmas cracker, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Christmas_cracker (as of June 8, 2007) (explaining that Christmas crackers "are an integral part of Christmas celebrations in the United Kingdom," among other places; "A cracker consists of a cardboard tube wrapped in a brightly decorated twist of paper . . . [which is] pulled by two people, and, much in the manner of a wishbone, . . . splits unevenly. The split is accompanied by a small bang produced by the effect of friction on a chemically impregnated card strip (similar to that used in a cap gun) . . . Typically the contents [of the Christmas cracker] are a coloured paper hat or crown; a small toy or other trinket and a motto, a joke or piece of trivia on a small strip of paper. Crackers are often pulled after Christmas dinner or at parties.")
Morgan Michelle Stoddard included this use of Wikipedia as one of the cases she considered as to how - and if - a crowd-sourced encyclopedia should be used in legal matters.
Judicial citation to Wikipedia is at present not a common practice. Thousands of federal court opinions citing thousands of sources have been published in the last few years, so one may wonder why anyone should be troubled over 100 opinions. The legal community and the general public should concern themselves with this practice because it is only going to become more and more common—some would argue it is inevitable (Breinholt, 2008).
[T]he act of judicial citation to a source has a snowball effect: a judge first cites a source, which essentially legitimizes it, and then lawyers rely on the source and cite it in their briefs, and then another judge cites the source in her opinion, and then the source cites all this as evidence that it is a legitimate source. This cycle has already begun with Wikipedia. When the Northern District of Iowa cited a Wikipedia article on the musical performer Ciara in United States v. Warthan (2008), it justified use of the online encyclopedia by noting that Wikipedia was cited in United States v. Bazaldua (2007). And, Wikipedia, despite numerous warnings and disclaimers against citing to the website, highlights judicial citation as evidence that it is acceptable to cite Wikipedia in certain circumstances (“Wikipedia:Researching with Wikipedia,” n.d.). Therefore, before Wikipedia citations in court opinions (and other legal documents) become the norm, a decision needs to be made now whether Wikipedia is an acceptable source, and if so, in what circumstances.
Courts need to carefully consider whether it is appropriate to rely on a source that almost anyone can edit, that changes constantly, that is the subject of vandalism, and that openly discourages its use for serious research.
How Tesco uses crackers to stoke aspiration
Writing in the Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management, Jamie Allsopp references a Tesco advert that uses crackers to ask customers what they value:
While not a luxury brand, Tesco have had much success with the 'good, better, best' price architecture of their value and finest ranges. In a TV advertisement screened over the Christmas period for Christmas crackers, consumers were shown a value box of crackers alongside a finest box of crackers. The viewers were asked: 'Should you buy value or finest? One is obviously more attractive than the other.' When the prices appeared on screen (95p vs £19.96) the audience were asked to think again. This advertisement asks consumers to consider where value lies for them and offers them the opportunity to shop in environment where they can 'trade up' to the more aspirational offer if they wish, but choose an affordable alternative too.
These examples demonstrate how most or, at least, more and more consumers can now get involved in premium markets it is easier than ever to be a part of the new swathe of brands that have some association with luxury, premium or finesse.
Furthermore, this trend appears to be happening across markets and suggests changes in consumer behaviour (blurring the meaning of luxury in the process).