A conversation with a shopper in T.J. Maxx inspired this post.
The shopper was admiring a festive display of Christmas crackers. Not the kind of crackers you eat. These are the kind that holds a surprise inside and is made from a paper tube and decorative paper.
Christmas crackers and mumming have, for me, been a long curiosity. Maybe they are for you, too. And you may be surprised these two ideas are closely related. I know I was when I finally learned more about both traditions.
My English-Scottish grandmother included “Christmas Crackers” on her Christmas table. I also remember making them in elementary school, but neither experience taught anything about their history. Still, I include them on our Christmas table. So when researching both Christmas crackers and mumming, imagine my surprise when I discovered they seem to be traditionally related.
Mumming is putting on plays or skits either in a theatre or door-to-door. Mumming has roots in ancient Egypt but is best recorded in medieval times when the poor wore masks, crowns, and other costumes when putting on skits for entertainment.
Mumming also has roots in Saturnalia, a Roman festival celebrating the end of the autumn planting season. It was practiced during Samhain, All Hallows Eve, and All Saint’s Day. I believe the relationship between mumming and Christmas crackers began with the inclusion of mumming at the Christmastime Wedding of Edward I. Regula Ysewijn writes of the High Tories in her Downton Abbey Christmas Cookbook, “During the Christmas season, it (mumming) called for dressing up in elaborate costumes” so that they were not recognized by those who knew them when they went door-to-door in the village. Paper crowns were worn to mimic royalty. When invited, they would perform a skit and remove their masks when they were identified.
Tom Smith, a London confectioner, is credited with the first Christmas Cracker. The traditional story is that when he heard the crackle of the fire where he was sitting, he was inspired to add the “crack” to his individually wrapped almond bonbons. Initially, the bonbons included a love poem that a man would buy and give to his love interest, but later, jokes and riddles replaced the poems, and a prize replaced the almond.
The paper crown was added in the 1930s by his sons after taking over the confectionery business. They are a mainstay Christmas tradition in England and becoming more popular in America.
Christmas crackers are traditionally set out on the Christmas table. Today’s crackers are made from paper tubes wrapped with decorative paper and stuffed with simple prizes, a paper crown, and a joke or riddle. Each end is twisted, and two people pull on each end to open. Two strips of chemically treated paper react to the friction from pulling on each end of the cracker, which causes a bang. The crackers are popped at the beginning of dinner, and each guest must wear the enclosed paper crown.
I think it’s a bit amusing that during Victorian times, the wealthy participated in mumming and the Christmas cracker tradition. It seems they weren’t aware or didn’t care that both made fun of the rich and royalty. Or perhaps they did and were amused by the entertainment. Or were they being condescending toward the poor and their traditions? There are many stories and historical accounts about mumming and Christmas crackers, so it’s doubtful we’ll, for sure, ever know.