Not that long ago, Americans really didn’t have “Christmas crackers” at their holiday functions or even, necessarily, know what one was. (We’re talking the 1990s, back before we started using Britishisms like “spot on” and “cheeky” and “snog,” before we started calling a redhead “a ginger.”)
Nowadays, though, crackers are getting really popular, and while they still do tend to be sold mainly during Yuletide, they also pop up on the dinner plate at place settings for other sorts of parties, whether the big event is New Year’s Eve, Hanukkah, a wedding, or a child’s birthday. We’ve always been very into crackers, even when you couldn’t buy them practically anywhere, stateside, and had to special-order them by post from the United Kingdom or from this one cranky dame who used to sell them at exorbitant prices via mail order in Boston.
Call us old-fashioned cornballs, but we love to wear a tissue-paper crown. We get jolly and laugh unnecessarily loudly at the wheezy riddles that pop out of the cracker when it goes bang (“Where do animals go when their tails fall off?” The retail store. Bah-dum-dum.) But the “prizes” found inside the typical, store-bought holiday cracker? Cue the booby-prize wah-wah sound effect from Let’s Make a Deal: The prize is usually something like a tiny cardboard jigsaw puzzle that wouldn’t fit together if you could be bothered to try, or, in the more-expensive sort of cracker sold as “luxury,” a small metal item of similarly dubious utility, like an ugly key chain with a Santa on it, or clearly made in a sweatshop far from the fun.
Hence and therefore, we began making our own crackers a long time ago. If you’re an eggnog sort of person — someone who actively enjoys buying wrapping paper and spending long afternoons, as the sun sets early, baking cakes with rum in them, as you hum along to Bing Crosby — you will find cracker-making a delightful non-chore to add to your to-do checklist.
You will need the following:
• Cardboard tubes, between 5” and 7” inches in length. Save toilet-paper rolls in a box under a bed over the course of the year. Or saw up cardboard rolls from last year’s gift wrap. Make sure you have as many of these as you will have guests.
• Festive wrapping paper, for the outside. Use recycled paper from last December, if you are conservation-minded. Use the funny pages from the newspaper. Use scraps of fine wallpaper, if you’re fancy. Some years, we go for the flimsy, cheap, and cheerful kind of wrap that grandma may remember from the 1970s (“cheap and cheerful,” another Britishism slipped in there), decorated with Snoopy, or holly and berries, or candy canes and cornucopias of toys. Other years, we go for more elegant sheets of arty-looking, quality paper, which can be sourced locally at the Golden Eagle in East Hampton.
• Tissue paper. It should coordinate nicely with your outer wrapping. Make sure you have at least half a sheet of tissue per cracker.
• Trinkets. The only rule is it needs to slip easily inside the tube. Have teenagers? Think: tinted lip gloss, a Pura Vida bracelet, or a mood ring. Younger kids? Go to the Wharf Shop in Sag Harbor or Stevenson’s Toys in East Hampton or Southampton and pick up an invisible-ink spy pen, a tiny glass animal figurine, or a penny whistle. Just you and your significant other? Hide an engagement ring, a Commando thong bikini from Bonne Nuit in East Hampton, travel-size bottles of perfume, or an airplane-size Ketel One.
• Candies: Again, one per guest, and they need to be individually wrapped. Chocolate balls, such as Lindt or those foil-covered ones that only come out around Thanksgiving, are fun. Or salt water taffy, or Bazooka, or striped mints, or little foil-covered chocolate teddies. You get the picture. Browse Topiaire Flower Shop and candy store in Southampton.
• Clear tape and scissors.
• Ribbons: Go to Sag Harbor Variety and choose narrow ribbon to coordinate with your paper: red velvet? moss-green grosgrain? isn’t it nice to have an excuse to buy old-fashioned ribbons? We calculate around three crackers per yard of ribbon, but if the ribbon is especially thick or stiff and hard to tie into a bow, get more.
• Cracker snaps, paper crowns, and jokes or riddles on small slips of paper. We advise buying these essentials online, on etsy.com. We haven’t found the snaps — which make a modest bang! when you grab either end and pull them apart — anywhere locally, yet. And while paper crowns aren’t hard to make, it’s difficult to make them neatly, so they don’t look like a kindergartener did it (believe us, we’ve tried.) These items tend to cost only pennies, so just buy them. Typically, you can get a pack of these three items on etsy.com, by the dozen or half-dozen.
• Stickers: Optional. You may choose to seal the wrapping paper with a decorative sticker — foil star, “Made by Mom” sticker, snowman seal, what have you — rather than just cellophane tape. But you don’t have to.
Lay everything out, assembly-line-style, on a large table or on the floor. Put on some ultra-happy music — whatever that means to you. (We’re making our crackers right this second to the ultracheerful tune of The Cow Cow Boogie, by Ella Mae Morse, 1942.) Gather the children, if the children are to be involved in the crqfting rather than just being the surprise-ees.
• Stuff crackers. Center one snap inside each tube; the ends will be sticking out. Slip in one crown, one joke or riddle, one candy, and one trinket.
• Layer tissue over wrap and cut both, together, into squares large enough not just to roll around the tube but with enough extra length on either end to cover snaps and be tied off with ribbons. Roll the wrapping paper and outer layer of tissue into place and secure in the middle with your sticker or tape.
• Carefully tie either end of the cracker with ribbon, and make bows.
• Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, joyous Kwanzaa, jolly New Year! Now that you’ve done all this hard work, make someone else set the table. — EAST