One of the most interesting things about living overseas is experiencing the way different cultures celebrate holidays. The Christmas Cracker has become one of my favourites.
Over 20 years ago I spent one of my first Christmases in Britain with my fiancé and his staid relatives. The oldest generation arrived slow and creaking, placed gently in the overstuffed chairs in the living room facing the fireplace. Father-in-law-to-be poured sherry in pretty little glasses on a silver tray and passed them around. Not my first sherry, but I’d only had it once before, the previous Christmas. My nostrils flared and my lips pursed. It smelled of the mince pies I had yet to fall in love with.‘Happy Christmas!’ we all said to each other, lifting our glasses. I sipped politely and felt the sherry flare through my body before it even reached my stomach. I’d forgotten how strong it was. No wonder they got the oldies to sit before giving them a glass. I took another sip.
I asked if I could help with anything. The kitchen was off limits, but my fiancé and I were instructed to finish the table with the crackers. We walked into the dining room. Old Denby plates on placemats of hunting scenes set around the dark wood table covered in a lace tablecloth. Dark green velvet curtains pulled wide but still the daylight stayed outside.
My fiancé found a big cardboard box, opened it and pulled out a handful little red foil packets then handed me the box.
‘You do that side, I’ll do this,’ he said. Like sherry I’d done Christmas Crackers only once before. Before that I’d never heard of them. I was surprised this family had crackers, but that was before I realised everyone seemed to have crackers at Christmas.
When we gathered round the table, sat where instructed, the prim, quiet relatives all picked up the crackers. They crossed arms and grabbed the end of the cracker of the person next to them. Some of them started to smile.
‘ONE TWO THREE,’ several people called out and on three everyone pulled.
Pops snapped around the table and debris flew everywhere. A shriek from someone, a shout from another as people of all ages dove across the floor, scrambling for the bits that flew around. Like children diving for candy under a piñata.
I sat completely still, open mouthed, watching. A little plastic frog landed by my fork. A nail file pinged onto my fiancé’s plate. As I pieced together what had happened, Granddad, 92, put a bright pink tissue paper crown on his head. I sniggered. Couldn’t help it. Then Aunty Rose put a yellow tissue paper crown on her head. Then my fiancé’s mother positioned an orange one over her blow-dried-and-set hairstyle. Everyone put the tissue crowns on.
I wondered for a moment if this was one of those gags where you get the foreigner to do something ridiculous but no, they were quite earnest about this business.
‘Go on, Michelle, put yours on!’
I unfolded my crown. Green. I set it on my head but it took some work to get it to stay on. They were all smiling. At me, at each other, and compared their cracker toys. Then my fiancé’s father read a joke from a little piece of paper included in the cracker debris. An awful joke, but everyone laughed and read their jokes in turn.
This was a family of rules. One must say I’ve had sufficient, not I’m full. One doesn’t eat whilst walking along the street. One doesn’t wear jeans if one is a girl unless one is gardening. But bring out the magic parcels and put a tissue paper hat on and you can be set free of constriction. I was amazed.
As the years went by I too embraced the cracker at Christmas. I looked for crackers that matched a colour scheme, or that had different gifts inside. I tried fancy crackers one year, decided the gifts weren’t that much better and went back to the tacky versions. I considered a make-your-own set once but decided I have enough of a meltdown trying to get Christmas cards organised, no need to add another task to my list of Christmas jobs.
One year I found crackers with little plastic whistles of different sizes and basic sheet music so everyone around the table could play a tune together.
Perfect for our musical family. We got the video camera out and after dinner set up a line of our five kids with their cracker whistles. A couple of the kids had more than one whistle, confident in their ability to keep up. It was good fun until the boy put one up his nose to see if that would work, and then when his sister wanted a different whistle, he gave it to her. She didn’t know he’d had it up his nose until the other sister told her after she used it. She freaked. It’s all on video. Happy, crazy Christmas memories.
I will leave you with a classic Christmas Cracker joke:
What do you get if you cross Santa with a duck?
A Christmas Quacker!
Michelle Garrett is an American expat making a life in Britain for over 20 years. Yes, she's still homesick for the States and yes, she'd be homesick for Britain if she moved back there!
Michelle is a freelance writer and blogs at The American Resident.