The humble cracker is a British Festive tradition. It’s a cardboard tube with a small explosive inside that contains gifts for those around the table during Christmas dinner. Two people grab an end each and pull until the cracker breaks. Like a wishbone, the person who retains the lion’s share wins.
Crackers are as much a part of Christmas Day as overeating, drowsiness and playing with presents. Around in one form or another since the 1840s, the standard cracker contains three things:
1x paper hat
Hats and gifts have remained relatively consistent over the years, there’s only so much you can fit inside a small, cardboard cylinder. Jokes, however, have evolved and mutated almost beyond recognition since the cracker’s creation. What we find hilarious on Christmas Day in 2014 would be met by blank stares in 1914.
We’ve explored the British Newspaper Archive to look back at what made us chortle at different points in the past, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into the way humour has changed.
Cheshire Observer, 28th December, 1867
In this example from the Cheshire Observer, it would appear humour isn’t the only thing that’s changed, as this headline promises Christmas jokes yet was printed on December 28th. Reckless dating notwithstanding, the jokes follow the same ‘setup – punchline’ format we recognise today. In terms of content, however, the jokes range from the intellectual (who got ‘decline matrimony’?) to the genuinely tragic (love isn’t like a candle, it’s ok everyone).
Portsmouth Evening News, Christmas Eve, 1910
Puns from Portsmouth now, along with a disgusting joke about corns and a poem that doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Still, at least they almost managed the right day.
Northampton Mercury, Christmas Day, 1931
Hats off to the Northampton Mercury for nailing the date on this one, Christmas Day is scientifically proven to be the only day on which Christmas jokes are found funny. Classic scamp behaviour from Michael, or ‘Micky Five Cakes’ as he was known to his friends. The Mercury loses points for not making it clear when one joke ends and another begins, resulting in a lot of head scratching in the Findmypast office regarding character motivation.
Northern Echo, 31st December, 1896
Northern Echo here with the most egregious miss on the date front AND the joke front. We think that only one section of this mislabelled series of words even technically qualifies as a joke, and even that’s a bit laboured.
Sheffield Independent, Christmas Eve, 1885
If anyone can explain this poem in the comments we’d be genuinely grateful.