'Once Upon a Christmas...' Part 2

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

Are you ready for part 2?

Our next explosive object was also stamped into British culture a century and a half ago. The true origin of the cracker is unclear: the word ‘cracker’ was mentioned in a story from 1841, but the traditionally accepted inventor of the cracker goes to the Englishman Thomas Smith. In his sweet shop, he had started selling bonbons wrapped in paper that could be pulled apart. By 1847, this had evolved into including toys and novelties instead of sweets. By this point, Smith had decided to include the famous ‘cracking’ chemicals in his products, creating what was then called a ‘Cossaque’ (after Russian Cossack soldiers who were known for cracking their whips).

His creations were welcomed by Victorian society, leading to Smith opening a factory to accommodate production. His company still operates today, with royal warrants to its name. In addition, Smith has been given credit for introducing jokes in crackers. And yes, the idea of giving a deaf fisherman a ‘herring aid’ was considered a good joke in Victorian times. Some things never change...

This period also gave birth to the Christmas Card industry. The first cards produced by Henry Cole in 1843 were too pricey for much of the public. However, the introduction of the ‘half-penny’ postage rate in 1870 allowed almost anyone to send cards at dirt-cheap prices (equal to 1/480 of a pound Stirling in today’s money!) Along with the advent of colour printing, this sparked a surge in the popularity of Christmas cards. 11.5 million were produced in 1880 alone.

Unsurprisingly, many Victorian cards featured some strange and disturbing artwork. Among the pictures were dead robins, frogs stabbing each other to death, and a man being attacked by a polar bear. Why on earth were they like this?

Some cards represented the context at the time. For example, the dead robins would have symbolised the difficult experiences of the homeless during the winter. Other images depicted good fortune or made fun of old wives’ tales. Other pictures came from the Victorians’ interest in stories of folklore and magic. The transition into modern Christmas imagery on cards lasted throughout the 19th century. Charles Dickens and Tom Nast’s cartoons of Santa are just some examples that transformed the artwork on our cards from weird to wondrous.

There was once a time when Christmas was properly cancelled. Parliament, which was largely controlled by Puritan values, passed a law to ban Christmas in Britain. They claimed the festival had become too frivolous and was not how God intended Christ’s birth to be celebrated. This lasted 13 years, from 1647 to 1660. In the first year, riots blew up across the country. Soldiers forced church services to stop and businesses to stay open. Decorations were burned by the mayor. Even Christmas puddings were banned (but people secretly ordered them from Europe anyway). People became so angry that a petition was presented to Parliament, which argued that if they could not have Christmas Day, they would have the British monarch back on the throne. In time, Charles II became king and restored the celebration.

Part 3 coming soon!


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