Cards, crackers, and mistletoe

The first advertisement for a Christmas cracker appeared in The Illustrated London News in 1847. Crackers were invented by Tom Smith, a baker of sweets and designer of wedding cake ornaments.

On a trip to Paris in 1840, Tom discovered the “bon bon”, a sugared almond wrapped in a twist of tissue paper. He brought the sweet to London and during Christmas that year it sold extremely well.

Anxious to develop the idea further, Tom placed a small love motto in the tissue paper. As sales increased, he began to think up ways to make his “bon bons” even more attractive. The crackle of a log as he threw it on his fire gave him the inspiration that led to the crackers we know today.

The shape remained the same, but the size was increased to accommodate a “cracking mechanism”. Very quickly he began to refine his product, dropping the sweet but keeping the motto. Adding a surprise gift and initially calling his crackers “cosaques” completed the transformation.

Christmas cards
The custom of sending printed Christmas cards was started in England by civil servant and inventor Sir Henry Cole (1808-82), who invited artist John Calcott Horsley to design a card.

The first design depicted a family drinking wine and, in keeping with the temperance notions of the times, Horsley was criticized for the “moral corruption” of children.

Initially, 1,000 cards were printed and sold for one penny each. The introduction of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840 and the rapid development of printing techniques made sending cards extremely popular and fashionable.

Early designs were surprisingly elaborate, with cards shaped like fans, crescents, bells, birds, and candles. Some cards could even be folded like maps or fitted together as puzzles. Curiously, they seldom depicted snow, Christmas trees, or winter themes.

Christmas mistletoe
In England, the National Trust has reported that mistletoe could be under threat as one of its natural environments – the cider orchards of Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire – is rapidly disappearing. At least 60% have disappeared since the 1950s and the decline is even more dramatic in Devon and Kent, where the figure is as high as 90%.

“Mistel” is the Anglo-Saxon word for “dung”, and “tan” is the word for “twig”. So, mistletoe means “dung-on-a-twig”. The common name of the plant is derived from the ancient belief that mistletoe was propagated from bird droppings and that life could spring spontaneously from dung.

Mistletoe is one of the most mysterious and sacred plants of European folklore. It was thought to bestow life and fertility and to protect against poison. Kissing under the mistletoe is associated with marriage. Washington Irving, in his story “Christmas Eve” (in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent), relates the festivities surrounding the Twelve Days of Christmas, including kissing under the mistletoe:

“The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.”

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