My Family’s Christmas Crackers
My family loves Christmas crackers, so much so that they are also brought out at New Year’s and generally celebrated when they are found abandoned in a closet or forgotten in storage. When I was small, I hated the noise of them, but that didn’t stop me from sitting at the table after dinner while the entire extended family went through a box of them, seeing who got the most useless trinket and reading the back jokes and fortunes out loud. Paper crowns bobbed up and down with our laughter in red and green and garish pastels.
The trinkets usually ended up completely discarded or stepped on during the clean up of Boxing Day and January 2nd. The crowns usually were consigned to help light the kindling in the fireplace. However, the memories at least still remained and it’s incredible that upon the repetition of the ritual next Christmas we could almost always remember what we’d gotten out of our Christmas crackers the year before, hoping not to get the same thing.
Myself and my lovely spouse still enjoy Christmas crackers over the holidays but I’m not sure that the cats are as fond of the tradition as we are.
The Christmas Cracker in Brief
The origins of John Julius Norwich’s Christmas Cracker are simple. It started out as a notebook in which he kept whatever passage or piece of miscellany had caught his fancy from his extensive reading. Then it rapidly became a commonplace book. And, from a commonplace book, Norwich made it into a pamphlet to give to his friends and family during the holidays. Eventually he got the pamphlet bound and began selling it, then selling out of it, and it became a tradition from there.
The Ultimate Christmas Cracker collects the best of nearly five decades of Norwich’s crackers and is a mix of poetry, prose, quotes, and amusing anecdotes and factoids that tend to collect in the brain attic of an antiquarian reader over the course of the years. The book was a fast read because I couldn’t put it down and because it’s a joy to see so many gems of literature and reading all in one little package.
The Joy of Miscellany
I can admit that while I was reading this book my lovely spouse had to put up with me reading several passages to her out loud. We laughed a lot over them together. The sheer breadth of what Norwich includes is delightful in and of itself. There are quotes from Groucho Marx next to amusing inscriptions on gravestones next to moving poetry describing the love and devotion of a man for his deceased wife. There are also angry letters to typewriter stores and a story about what may or may not have happened to the heart of King Louis XIV.
Perhaps the collection isn’t exactly Christmas-y per se, since Christmas is rarely mentioned, but all the same the holiday spirit is there in the sense that this book is truly meant to be shared. It’s meant to be read aloud or in tandem and laughed over. It’s meant to bring book people onto the same page, and bring them together through the medium of their shared obsession — the joy of the written word in all of its various forms, absurdities, and beauty.
My only regret is that I have only the ‘best of’ collection and that it’s probably impossible to find each year’s cracker individually just to get even more miscellany to laugh with my lovely spouse over.
The Despair of Miscellany
One of the things that I wish that were in this volume? Translations of the various passages that were included in their original languages. Norwich was a member of the English aristocracy, attended Eton, and had an extensive education in the classic areas of study. As such, he tends to assume that Latin and French are languages that people know extensively and doesn’t provide translations. I know just enough French to be able to read much of it, but I was struggling with the poetry and I only have a very rudimentary understanding of Latin.
Also I would be remiss not to mention that though the crackers extend into modernity, the tone is still one of the past. It’s nostalgic, yes, but at the same time it isn’t as diverse as modern standards would prefer — by that, I mean it is very Euro-centric. It’s nothing you’re not already used to if you’re an antiquarian reader, but it should still be mentioned for the benefit of those that are used to more contemporary fare.
We had a lovely amount of snow that I was most definitely enjoying — but then came the rain. A lot of rain. And sleet. And a good deal of unseasonably warm weather. For some reason, it’s got me down in a way that I wasn’t exactly expecting. I mean, I’ve been through green Christmases before, but when the snow melted this time it felt awful. Maybe it’s just been a hard year and I’ve had enough of mud. Probably part of it is that the wind was howling and that always makes me think of falling tree branches and power outages.
Looking ahead at the forecast, I do see that the snow will be back soon enough and, as I type, the winds are long over. Soon we’ll have a winter wonderland all over again.