Christmas crackers are festive table decorations that make a snapping sound when pulled open, and often contain a small gift and a joke. They are part of Christmas celebrations in the United Kingdom, Ireland, United States and Commonwealth countries such as Australia (where they are sometimes known as bon-bons), Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
A cracker consists of a segmented cardboard tube wrapped in a brightly decorated twist of paper with a prize in the middle, making it resemble an oversized sweet-wrapper. The cracker is pulled apart by two people, each holding an outer chamber, causing the cracker to split unevenly and leaving one person holding the central chamber and prize. The split is accompanied by a mild bang or snapping sound produced by the effect of friction on a shock-sensitive, chemically impregnated card strip (similar to that used in a cap gun). One chemical used for the friction strip is silver fulminate.
Crackers are typically pulled at the Christmas dinner table or at parties. In one version of the cracker tradition, the person with the larger portion of cracker empties the contents from the tube and keeps them. In another, each person has their own cracker and keeps its contents regardless of whose end they were in. Typically these contents are a coloured paper hat, a small toy, a small plastic model or other trinket, and a motto, a joke, a riddle or piece of trivia on a small strip of paper. The paper hats, with the appearance of crowns, are usually worn when eating Christmas dinner. The tradition of wearing festive hats is believed to date back to Roman times and the Saturnalia celebrations, which also involved decorative headgear.
Christmas crackers are also associated with Knut's parties, held in Sweden at the end of the Christmas season.
Tradition tells of how Tom Smith (1823–1869) of London invented crackers in 1847. He created the crackers as a development of his bon-bon sweets, which he sold in a twist of paper (the origins of the traditional sweet-wrapper). As sales of bon-bons slumped, Smith began to come up with new promotional ideas. His first tactic was to insert love messages into the wrappers of the sweets (similar to fortune cookies).
Smith added the "crackle" element when he heard the crackle of a log he had just put on a fire. The size of the paper wrapper had to be increased to incorporate the banger mechanism, and the sweet itself was eventually dropped, to be replaced by a trinket: fans, jewellery and other substantial items. The new product was initially marketed as the Cosaque (French for Cossack), but the onomatopoeic "cracker" soon became the commonly used name, as rival varieties came on the market.
The other elements of the modern cracker—the gifts, paper hats and varied designs—were all introduced by Tom Smith's son, Walter Smith, to differentiate his product from the rival cracker manufacturers which had suddenly sprung up.
Tom Smith & Company merged with Caley Crackers in 1953.
A Christmas cracker is the subject of The Party Favor, an oil painting by American artist Norman Rockwell.  The painting appeared as cover art for The Saturday Evening Post on 26 April 1919.
On 17 August 2020, while filming a Christmas episode of the television series QI, British comedian Alan Davies set a Guinness World Record for the most crackers pulled by an individual in 30 seconds. He achieved 35 successful cracks, outscoring fellow panelist Justin Moorhouse by five in a head-to-head competition.
Passengers on commercial flights in and to the United States are explicitly prohibited from carrying Christmas crackers on board or in checked baggage. In the United Kingdom, rules vary by airline and airport.
- McAlpine, Fraser (7 December 2011). "Part 3: Crackers". A Very British Christmas. BBC America. Retrieved 25 December 2012.
- "Christmas Crackers USA". Archived from the original on 14 December 2016. Retrieved 3 August 2016.
- Rarely, they can be much more substantial. In 2009, Harrod's offered a version of Christmas cracker retailing at $1,000: "Harrods Luxury 6 Christmas Cracker Collection: Bling it up this festive season!"
- OED, Second edition, 1989; online version November 2010.. Retrieved 23 December 2010. Earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1893.
- Peter Kimpton (2005) Tom Smith's Christmas crackers: an illustrated history, Tempus ISBN 0-7524-3164-1
- Margaret Baker (1992) Discovering Christmas customs and folklore: a guide to seasonal rites, p.72, Osprey Publishing ISBN 0-7478-0175-4
- Fletcher, Damien (22 December 2011). "Christmas traditions: The history behind crackers, mistletoe, turkey, stockings, tinsel, mince pies and more". Daily Mirror. Retrieved 25 December 2012.
- "History of the Christmas Cracker". History. Tom Smith Crackers. Archived from the original on 27 August 2013. Retrieved 25 December 2012.
- Callow, Simon (2009). Dickens' Christmas. London: Frances Lincoln. p. 138. ISBN 978-0711230316.
- "London Christmas Past: The Invention Of The Christmas Cracker" (5 December 2012) Londonist
- "How Finsbury Square Gave The World A Christmas Tradition" (5 December 2014) Londonist
- "Wikiart.org, Norman Rockwell, The Party Favor". Wikiart.org, Visual Art Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
- "The Party Favor". ARC (Art Renewal Center). Retrieved 20 December 2018.
- "Saturday Evening Post cover, April 26, 1919". Best Norman Rockwell Art. 20 December 2018. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
- Guinness World Records; online version.
- "Most Christmas crackers pulled by an individual in 30 seconds". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 23 May 2021.
- "What Can I Bring?". Transportation Security Administration. Retrieved 15 March 2018.
- "Flying with Christmas crackers 2018: Find out if your airline will let you travel with the festive faves this Xmas". APH (Airport Parking and Hotels). Retrieved 7 March 2019.
Media related to Christmas crackers at Wikimedia Commons