A cardboard tube, a tissue hat, a rubbish joke, a tiny gift…these Christmas staples add up to so much more than the sum of their parts, says Sara O’Reilly
If you are hosting Christmas lunch this year, whatever you do, don’t forget the crackers. You may consider them a mere decorative flourish but they play a much more important role than that, fulfilling all sorts of important, unspoken functions.
Which is not in any way to diminish their aesthetic value. For the meticulous Christmas party planner, the search for the perfect combination of colour, content and embellishment can become a bit, well, obsessive. According to my family, anyway.
I digress. Whether you will sit down to Christmas lunch with a bunch of friends, your kith and kin or a collection of waifs and strays in want of warmth and company, those deceptively frivolous crackers will be working overtime. For a start, there are the hats. Although there will be someone at the table with a small, neat head who looks rather chic in a purple paper crown, everyone else will look daft. And that’s the point: the tacit agreement to negate the effort you’ve made to look good (even though you were up half the night partying or taking reindeer-sized bites out of carrots) says ‘what matters most today is that we are together’.
Being together isn’t always easy, though. The guests at your table may have little in common. There may be old enmities to negotiate, feuds to tiptoe around. Conversational gambits may be hard to come by. That’s where those terrible cracker jokes come in handy. The communal groan is a brilliant bonding mechanism.
Already you’ve got your money’s worth (if you got a bargain by stalking your chosen crackers right up to Christmas Eve and pouncing when they were marked down to half-price, so much the better). But we haven’t talked about the cracker presents yet. If tradition dictates that in your house the last bit of wrapping has been ripped off shortly after sunrise, by the time you arrive at the turkey blowout things may have started to feel a bit flat and those small tokens provide a welcome lift. For those who don’t get their presents until the Christmas pud, the washing-up and the coffee are done and dusted, the cracker gifts are an exciting taster of what is to come. Most importantly of all, with cracker presents you are allowed to say, ‘I don’t want this. Wanna swap?’
The giving and receiving of presents is fraught with the possibility of disappointment, the pain of unreciprocated generosity – and hilarity suppressed for the sake of the giver’s feelings. The banter and negotiation that accompanies the explosive arrival of the cracker goodies is a safety valve that allows us to be grown-up and gracious about the ‘real’ presents – and stops us all going crackers.
Ten great cracker jokes
We asked around the office, trawled the internet, scraped the bottom of the barrel… We were after a groan, not a belly laugh – you can probably tell.
What happened when Santa’s cat swallowed a ball of wool?
She had mittens.
Knock knock. Who’s there?
Bumblebee. Bumblebee who?
Bum’ll be cold if you don’t put your pants on.
What do you give a man who has everything?
Why did the scarecrow get a promotion?
Because he was outstanding in his field.
What do you get if you cross Santa with a duck?
A Christmas quacker.
I dig, you dig, we dig, he dig,
she dig, they dig.
It’s not a great poem, but it’s deep.
Grab your taco, you’ve pulled a dyslexic Mexican.
What did one snowman say to the other snowman?
Can you smell carrot?
Where are the Andes?
On the end of the armies.
What do you call Santa’s little helpers?
For more festive cheer, head to timeout.com/christmas.