Disappointed with the toe-curling jokes and miniature screwdrivers in your Christmas crackers this year? Here's what you could have had instead...

On January 7, 1915, an English soldier on the frontline wrote home to his family in Maryport, Cumbria:

‘One of the fellows sharing my “buggy hut” had a parcel on the same day and we combined and invited four more pals, one of whom had a box of Tom Smith’s Christmas crackers sent out, which we cracked, and it added to the fun immensely. Christmas in the trenches! What a time! “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men”.’

Thanks to the familiar snap of the humble Christmas cracker, six soldiers gained a simple moment of joy in a time of utter devastation.

A century later, that marvellous ‘crack’ remains an essential component of our traditional festivities, one that’s been enjoyed in British households since the early 1840s. Legend has it that confectioner Tom Smith was inspired to add a snap of silver fulminate to his sugared-almond parcels after a log crackled loudly as he threw it onto the fire. These ‘bangs of expectation’, as Mr Smith named them, were a hit and, by 1900, the company was selling 13 million crackers a year. It received its first Royal Warrant in 1906 and remains the official supplier of crackers to the Royal Household to this day.

Bad jokes aside, this is a serious business. And you can now get crackers that go far beyond the usual paper hats and plastic moustaches you get in everyday crackers.

The Queen’s crackers: ‘Humour, nostalgia, luxury’

Preparations at Tom Smith, the South Wales-based official supplier of crackers to the Royal Household, start more than 12 months in advance of the festive season, creating a never-ending Christmas countdown. ‘We treat each cracker as a beautifully designed tableware item,’ enthuses the company’s Katie Brickle.

‘They can deliver humour, evoke nostalgia and lend an element of luxury to each place setting.’

The late 1800s, when crackers were handcrafted and beautifully printed, were a real heyday for these festive staples—even a young Alfred J. Munnings produced designs featuring goblins, pixies, snow scenes and Christmas puddings for boxes of Christmas crackers produced by Caley, a company that later merged with Tom Smith.

Fortnum & Mason: The six-person cracker, with jokes by Stephen Fry

People in the world of crackers are working hard to re-establish the traditional dinner accompaniment as much more than a container of flimsy paper hats, terrible jokes and miniature sewing kits.

‘Fortnum & Mason has long championed their cause,’ points out Joe Guest, the department store’s Hampers, Christmas, and stationery buyer.

He adds that the cracker department used to take up the entire space where the No. 45 Jermyn Street restaurant now stands. ‘It was a really big affair, with hundreds of different varieties and styles offering weird and wacky designs. We’re striving to get back to that. That’s my job, so, no pressure,’ he laughs.

If he’s feeling the weight of expectation, he seems to be handling it rather well—Mr Guest and his team are launching a six-person cracker this year, an idea that arose when he discovered, through the Fortnum’s archives, that the store used to stock such items.

‘I was so keen to bring that back,’ he discloses. ‘It’s taken 18 months working with the supplier and the head of product development, making sure it would work technically as well as aesthetically, and it was a real labour of love, but we got there in the end.’

For each festive period, the Fortnum’s team begins designing the crackers from August of the previous year—‘we’ve been working on 2017 for a few months now’—giving it the time to consider every single detail, from the patterns and the artwork to the different materials and finishes, right down to the adornment on the neck. ‘It’s a long process, but there are so many different elements that you might not consider,’ Mr Guest explains.

Last year, Fortnum’s collaborated with British artist Rory Dobner to produce an elegant print of the store’s Piccadilly building for one range: ‘We added gold foiling to the windows and it looked spectacular.’ Spectacular is a more than appropriate word for the shop’s range, where a box of six is priced from £10 up to £1,000. Those at the higher end of the scale in this year’s collection are covered with velvet and presented in a bespoke wicker hamper.

Mr Guest is keen to stress that a cracker’s contents are just as important as its appearance—Fortnum’s gifts might include silk scarves, silver cufflinks, tea infusers and jewellery.

And you won’t find just any old jokes secreted inside the new six-person cracker—Stephen Fry wrote them. ‘We try to take everything to the next level, adding the touches that really make these crackers pop,’ he promises.

Elton John’s crackers: ‘It’s up to us to capture the magic’

Upper Crust Crackers knows all about going that extra mile. Each bespoke piece is handmade from start to finish by a small team based in a workshop in the Hampshire countryside. ‘There are four of us in the office and then a few people who make them at home,’ explains director Katy Dziedzic.

Their task is no easy one, considering the often-overwhelming size of orders. ‘One client put in an order for 3,000 this year—we started making those in February. We give ourselves January off,’ she adds.

The personal touch is very important to Miss Dziedzic and her team, inspiring ongoing loyalty in customers, from luxury global brands to individuals—including Harrods, Asprey and Sir Elton John—some of whom have placed an order every year since the company launched in 1987. Clients can choose their colour scheme, material, ribbon, decoration and whether or not they would like the crackers branded with a logo, before they begin the process of selecting the jokes and gifts.

Upper Crust Crackers

‘We can also follow a specific theme,’ elaborates Miss Dziedzic. ‘One batch we made for a London gunmaker included shooting jokes and, for my sister’s wedding, we had a marriage theme.’ Gift requests range from the unusual—‘an underwear company wanted a pair of knickers in each cracker’—to the exceptional: ‘We’ve been asked a few times to include engagement rings. That’s always very special.’

Whether it reveals a paper hat that rips as soon as you plonk it on your head or a velvet crown that you can keep for years, the cracker is a festive favourite that’s here to stay. ‘Each family has its own memories and traditions, which are relived and remade each Christmas,’ Miss Brickle concludes. ‘It’s up to us to capture that magic.’