A Christmas cracker

For most of my adult life, I have been a regular visitor to the United States. Even though I have never lived there, I generally feel that I know a lot about the place – the people, the culture, the language … I often joke that I am bilingual: I speak English and American. But I still get caught out. The other day I used the term “off piste” in a metaphorical sense and was not understood. I am reminded of the famous description of the relationship between the UK and the US: “Two great nations divided by a common language.”

When it comes to holiday customs in general and celebrating Christmas in particular, I thought that I really understood matters …

My perception of Christmas in the US was that it was much the same as in the UK: decorations, trees, presents, cards, a big family meal … The only significant difference is that Thanksgiving is a more “family” holiday and Christmas is relatively low key and short [compared with the UK particularly, where the country more or less shuts down for at least 10 days!].

Anyway, this was my view of Christmas, but I recently stumbled across an interesting difference, which is very surprising because the custom that I have in mind lends itself to commercial exploitation and creativity/diversification [both of which are entirely compatible with the American Way]. I was surprised to learn that Christmas crackers are not at all widely known in the US. Compare that to the UK, where no Christmas lunch/dinner would be complete unless every guest is equipped with a cracker.

I feel sad that millions of people are missing out on a fun aspect of the holiday and it is my one-man mission to change that. For the uninitiated, I will start out by explaining what a cracker is and what you do with it:

A cracker is tubular thing, normally just over a foot long and perhaps two inches in diameter. It is made of paper and cardboard and decorated in various ways. Maybe a picture will help:

Most people buy crackers [in boxes of 6 or more]. The prices vary from cheap to astronomically expensive, depending on their contents, but more on that in a moment. Some people get a lot of pleasure from making their own.

Each end of the cracker is a kind of handle and down the middle runs the cracking device. Imagine two thin strips of stiff paper, joined together by overlapping a short length, where that join is filled with a small amount of explosive. Pulling on the ends of the strips sharply makes them separate and sets of the explosive with a “bang”.

The custom is that each person has their own cracker, which they pull with their neighbor at the table. This causes the bang and the cracker is separated into two parts. One part is larger and contains the “goodies”. The person who ends up with the larger part, gets to keep said goodies. After everyone has pulled their crackers, a little redistribution of winnings normally takes place, so that everyone has something. Christmas is not a competitive event!

The goodies consist of three items:

  • a gift – this may be complete junk or perhaps something slightly useful or even something valuable; this is largely determined by the price of the crackers [or who made them]
  • a paper hat – these are ill-fitting and never look good on anybody; you are required to wear the hat for the remainder of the meal
  • a joke – this is on a small slip of paper and should be read out for everyone’s enjoyment; it is traditional that such jokes evoke a groan rather than laughter

Unfortunately, I am unable to provide all blog readers with a cracker or even a gift and a hat. But I can share some of the fun in the form of my favorite geeky joke:

There are ten [10] kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who do not.

If you are not that geeky, here is another variant for you:

There are eleven [II] kinds of people in the world: those who understand Roman numerals and those that do not.

In either case, you may now groan.

If you have a holiday in the coming days, then I hope that you have fun. And, in any case, may we all have a peaceful and prosperous MMXV [or 11111011111, if you prefer – a palindromic year; how about that!].

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2014/12/23/a-christmas-cracker/