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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Tom Smith's Bangs of Expectation

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas DECEMBER. 25, 2020

[142-365] 25th. December 2020- No you have not stumbled on to a porn site. Many people have probably gone crackers this year, but we Brits are guaranteed to go crackers every year, at least on one day a year.

This year we were not able to do our usual considered Christmas preparations so we had to choose our Christmas crackers at a socially distanced, hand gelled, face masked, garden centre, which was not conducive to hanging around and enjoying the experience. If you wear glasses you know what happens when you wear a mask, sometimes it is difficult to position the mask just right so everything goes misty, you cannot see your own feet and you just want to get outside.

This is how we ended up with "Celebration Crackers" rather than "Christmas Crackers". I didn't know there was such a thing as celebration crackers as traditionally all crackers were for celebration so you didn't need to add the words to the box. It's like restaurant adverts for really tasty food, which indicate it probably isn't. You can tell these crackers are about "celebration" or as I will now call it activism, because everything about them is brown and wholemeal, even down to the "Plastic Free Gifts" which I foolishly thought when I finally got them home and my steamed up glasses had cleared, meant they contained free gifts made from plastic. No such joy, I'm afraid, they were just gifts free from plastic. Like something that should be greasy and calorific being free from butter, or a sweet treat being free from sugar, like that is supposed to be a good thing. They even had "recyclable packaging" which I had always assumed brown paper was anyway. I normally try to avoid any product that only advertises what it is not. There are now some food products that are missing so many ingredients I am surprised they make a solid form, I am fully expecting bags of wholesome dust to appear on our shelves any time soon. They could call the powder, gluten free, dairy free pizza. Worse, the more ingredients they leave out, the more expensive it becomes.

This is no word of a lie, and I wish I had kept the packaging for posterity, but I have moved house twice since then and what's the point of moving house and taking used packaging with you. Moving house is designed precisely to focus the mind on how little used packaging you need to keep in your life.

But I digress, and I once bought some sesame seed covered peanuts, and it said so in huge letters on the front of the bag. On the reverse of the bag in much smaller letters was the warning, "May contain peanuts or sesame seeds". Now as bizarre and ludicrous as that is, that a human being somewhere, sitting at a desk actually thought they better put that warning on that actual product, my first thought was, why make the product name so prominent and large and the warning so hidden and small. At least have the courage of your health and safety convictions and rebrand to "Warning May Contain" it's quite snappy. Then in your "Warning May Contain" range of deadly foods you just add the ingredient after the brand name. In this case the bag only needed in large letters, "Warning May Contain Peanuts or Sesame Seeds" on the front and a smaller sign on the back hidden away that says, "Actually is 100% Peanut and Sesame Seed". It would sit quite nicely on the shelf next to a box of "Warning May Contain Frozen Prawns" or some small overpriced sachets of "Warning May Contain Cashews".

But when we actually pulled the crackers this was a real shocker, even the party hats were brown. What are we, monks on a retreat? Party hats in crackers used to be pink, or yellow, or blue or if you had gone really wild, gold. No. I'm sorry there is nothing celebratory about brown paper, not unless you are living through the Blitz in London during a World War, when they would have used something called initiative and died it red with beetroot skin anyway.

They were first made in about 1845-1850 by a London sweet maker called Tom Smith. He had seen the French 'bon bon' sweets (almonds wrapped in pretty paper) on a visit to Paris in 1840. He came back to London and tried selling sweets like that in England and also included a small motto or riddle in with the sweet. But they didn't sell very well.

That's because he probably didn't have plastic gifts and they were all brown.

In 1861 Tom Smith launched his new range of what he called 'Bangs of Expectation'! Legend says that, one night, while he was sitting in front of his log fire, he became very interested by the sparks and cracks coming from the fire. Suddenly, he thought what a fun idea it would be, if his sweets and toys could be opened with a crack when their fancy wrappers were pulled in half.

But as with most legends it's not true.

It's thought that Tom actually bought the recipe for the small cracks and bangs in crackers from a fireworks company called Brock’s Fireworks. When Tom died, his expanding cracker business was taken over by his three sons, Tom, Walter and Henry. Walter introduced the hats into crackers and he also travelled around the world looking for new ideas for gifts to put in the crackers. Crackers were also made for special occasions like Coronations. The British Royal Family still has special crackers made for them today! ( This is how these "celebration" crackers look after all the "celebration", still brown. They do come with a joke each though. Cracker jokes are traditionally bad and sometimes rude and if they aren't funny then at least they make you groan, that is part of the fun.

Today, we have two gems. What do you get if you eat Christmas decorations? and What did the big candle say to the little candle? Answers at the end.

Part of the joy of crackers is the way they turn adults into kids, and a mark of the man or woman is will he wear the paper hat and risk looking like he's enjoying himself or will she be more worried about her expensive hair do than having a bit of a laugh. It's not about the gifts it's about the ritual, ritual humiliation actually, and most importantly you all help pull other people's crackers you don't pull your own, it is called breaking the ice, which along with copious amounts of alcohol makes much merriment. At Christmas, restaurants usually have them as part of the table decoration and it is fascinating to watch other couples and how they tackle the crackers.

Some couples are not going to stoop so low as to even pull them and they just sit there in silence until they leave, they are in a public space and have an image to maintain, these are the people you never invite into your home. Some couples will pull the crackers because they are less embarrassed about pulling them than they are about being seen not to be pulling them, because they are aware other people may be watching, but it is minimal input and there is no childish joy and absolutely no chance they will put on the silly hats. They have done their bit once the cracker is pulled. Then there are the couples who proudly pull their crackers as soon as possible to get maximum usage out of the silly hat, the crackers induce joy and these people laugh a lot, especially at the bad jokes, and sit much closer together, not noticing that there are other people in the room.

Children on the other hand just want more crackers, one is never enough, and the cheaper, louder, more garish and tasteless they are the better. The adults always try to accidentally forget the little gifts when they leave the table, any children will just collect up as many as they can get their hands on like they are collecting gold bars from a treasure chest. But these "celebration" crackers are not cheap, loud, garish or tasteless. Apart from a sprig of holly they are "Christmas free"

In these health and safety obsessed times, I suppose it won't be too long before it is decided that silver fulminate, a highly unstable explosive compound is not appropriate for the dinner table, until then we have crackers that actually crack when pulled.

There are two paper strips joined in the centre of a cracker that pull apart when the cracker separates. When the cracker is pulled, the friction of the sandpaper creates sufficient heat to cause the silver fulminate to explode, producing the satisfying crack that we associate so closely with Christmas.

As promised, no free plastic gifts, just these plastic free ones. A cookie cutter in the shape of a star and a small Christmas tree peg for hanging a Christmas card on a string. They even look "joyful", don't you think?

We used to get things like impossible Chinese puzzles that everyone struggled over in turn after lunch and fortune telling fish made of cellophane that waved around with the warmth of the palm of your hand like magic, or a miniature card trick. We never ever got anything useful or worthy or virtuous.

It makes me wonder what will become of crackers if they continue to suck all the joy out of them. Will there be a backlash cracker activist movement to make them garish and loud and cheap again, bringing back the fortune telling fish?

Answers to jokes, in no particular order. Tinsilitis and "I'm going out"

Addendum - Christmas 2021 returned some normality, so much so, we had good old fashioned brightly coloured crackers and party hats again. And, guess what I got? Only a genuine red cellophane fish.

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Somehow I remembet this post....not so much your commentary (whcih was fun to read) but the photos. Maybe because at one time in my life (or maybe two/three) we had crackers around our Christmas celebration.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas

Over the years we have simplified Christmas but crackers always feature.🙂

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