What do you get if you cross a potentially awkward, booze-soaked family lunch with a rich tradition of bad yet inclusive comedy? Arguably the most widely enjoyed cultural event of the year: the telling of Christmas cracker jokes.
Estimates for cracker consumption vary enough to make any of them doubtful, but they’re all in the hundreds of millions a year. And, from Fortnum & Mason’s “winter green” crackers (£295 for six) to the pile-them-high stalwarts of the canteen Christmas lunch, they all have one thing in common – a terrible gag.
For Julian Reed, the festive season starts each July, when his company Robin Reed begins designing crackers for the Christmas after next. Production starts in China in January, and by September the company has made 10m crackers ready to deliver to retailers including Lakeland and several big garden centres. Reed, who is 60 and is based in West Bromwich, started his business in his bedroom aged 14, and made crackers in the summer holidays for his first clients. Jokes were always central to their appeal. “And they’re as awful now as they always were,” he says. “But they have to be awful, so that nobody can tell one badly.”
Reed relies on a list of just 24 jokes. He sends me the proof sheet that contains them all, including: “Why did the doughnut seller retire? He was fed up with the hole business.” He tells me there’s no secret cracker joke book; cracker makers just recycle classics and occasionally make up new ones or accept submissions from keen customers. Reed’s own favourite isn’t on his list this year. “Why did the school teacher wear sunglasses? Because her pupils were too bright.”
I imagine people think there are little elves in a workshop writing out jokes, but it’s not quite the case
Like so much of modern British Christmas, crackers are a tradition with Victorian roots. The device dates back to the 1840s, when the London confectioner Tom Smith wrapped almond sweets in twists of paper. Smith later added romantic mottoes, as well as an explosive crack, eventually calling his creations Bangs of Expectation before the catchier “cracker” caught the public imagination. Jokes first appeared in crackers in the 1920s.
Cracker-pulling was one of the peculiar traditions that Geine Pressendo, owner of Simply Crackers, immediately embraced when she moved to the UK from Brazil about 30 years ago. “I thought it was amazing,” she says. “It adds such an element of fun to the Christmas table.”
Pressendo, a former corporate finance manager, inherited a master list of about 600 jokes when she bought the company from its retiring founder in 2010. It includes the classics, such as: “Why did the skeleton laugh? Because he had a funny bone”; “What did the zero say to the eight? Nice belt!” “They have to be understood by all ages,” Pressendo says.
Katie Brickle commands a gag database at Design Group UK, which produces around 60m crackers a year, mostly in its factory in China. The company now owns the Tom Smith brand, which still has a royal warrant. She thinks joke-telling has only become more popular in the digital era. “It’s all about keeping that tradition of interaction around the table alive,” she says.
I am not surprised to learn that none of the cracker merchants I speak to requires the services of a professional comedian. “If we had our own joker, it would be for a joke salary,” Pressendo says, laughing.
Brickle adds: “I imagine people think there are little elves in a workshop writing out jokes, but it’s not quite the case.” But Brickle, who supplies major retailers including supermarkets, says a “cracker innovation team” does occasionally make new submissions. She’s tight-lipped when I ask for an example.
Real-life comedians tend to distance themselves from the form. “Cracker jokes function as jokes but only in the most mathematical way,” says Glenn Moore, a standup comic known for his quick-fire one-liners. “In a court of law, you’d go: ‘Well yeah, legally that is a joke,’ but I can’t think of any that I’ve ever laughed at.”
Moore, who will cram in 300 gags a show when he starts a new tour in February, says he does know one fellow comedian who moonlights as a cracker joke writer. “But I cannot stress how keen they are to keep themselves anonymous,” he adds (my attempts to talk to the mystery gagster under an assumed name lead nowhere).
Yet Moore does see some value in cracker jokes. They are unusual in offering punchlines the audience is encouraged to guess, adding to their potential for social cohesion. “They’re also so bad that you read them and think: ‘You know what, conversation with my family isn’t all that bad; I’m actually willing to engage in a political conversation with my uncle,’” Moore says. “I also think they’re useful in teaching kids about basic joke structure.”
Moore starts to look around as he walks down the pavement as we talk on the phone. “So, we’ll take a car; a car tyre. So we have the word ‘tyre’, and then you just think: ‘OK, what aspects are there to a car tyre … you get a flat tyre, and ‘flat’ has a double meaning as a home. So a Christmas cracker joke would be: ‘What is a tyre’s least favourite kind of accommodation? A flat.’ Anyone can come up with that.”
Pressendo serves the bespoke end of the cracker market, where she says demand is also high among corporate clients for something punchier for the Christmas party season. A new client, which makes women’s hygiene products, sent their own jokes for inclusion. “How do you embarrass an archaeologist? You give him a tampon and ask him what period it’s from,” says Pressendo, whose firm has also made crackers for brands including Burberry, Heineken and the BBC. “I personally found that quite funny. Here’s another one: ‘What do people say about the rapper who won battles on her period? She has a mean flow.’”
Yet Pressendo says the risk of cancellation is alive in the seemingly low-stakes consumer end of the market. She got a recent complaint from a US client about the joke: “What did Santa do when he went speed dating? He pulled a cracker”, because, “cracker” can be used as a racial epithet for white people in America.
Topical gags this year include the prize-winning joke: ‘What type of peas ruin Christmas dinner? MPs’
Brickle is also keenly aware of potential sensitivities round the dinner table, and supervises a regular review of the joke bank at Design Group UK. “We have to make sure there are no references to something awful that has happened,” she says.
“You can’t make them topical,” Reed adds. “We’re making crackers in January so anything current might not be relevant or appropriate by December.” Yet there appears to be an appetite for a side of edginess with the turkey and stuffing. An annual cracker joke competition, hosted for the past 10 years by the Gold comedy TV channel, elicited a range of topical gags this year, including the winning joke: “What type of peas ruin Christmas dinner? MPs”, and the rather poignant: “How do you keep your home warm this Christmas? Tinsulation.”
Scandal rarely troubles the Christmas cracker joke industry. But there have been cases. Moore’s favourite cracker joke of all time was the result of a typographical error that left people across the country scratching their paper-behatted heads in 2018.
The joke, which had been in circulation for a few years, showed up in batches of Sainsbury’s crackers, and read: “What kind of cough medicine does Dracula take? Con medicine.” The middle letters of the word “coffin” in the answer (get it?) had been lost.
Says Moore: “Even if you got the joke correct, you’ve still got a word in the punchline that’s repeated in the setup – it’s just really bad stuff all round, which I suppose is the whole point.”