19 December 2012

Christmas at the Bindery

A commission-in-progress at the bindery: ingredients for a set of bespoke Parvum Opus Christmas
crackers include fountain pens, tiny bookmarks, ink  cartridges in fun colors,
and of course, a paper crown and a very bad joke. The center of the cracker awaits decoration.

Each Christmas, along with our holiday commissions, we look forward to constructing Christmas crackers at the bindery. We make them in small batches in the traditional way, jacketing cardboard tubes in beautiful papers and filling them with special treats customized for a particular family or event.  Of course the classic ingredients are all there: friction snaps, tissue paper hats and very bad (yet artfully chosen) jokes, but we take great pleasure in choosing extra special  trinkets for our crackers.

Some of the elements for this project gathered on a work table.

In the past, these have included vintage sterling silver charms and lockets, antique bird calls, antique collapsing travel cups, monogrammed seals and sealing wax sticks, custom address labels, and more. Today, we're putting the finishing touches on a set of six crackers for a family of bibliophiles, and so have filled each one with a Kaweco Sport fountain pen. 

The Kaweco Sport fountain pen is available in a variety of fun colors 
and nib sizes, making it a nice choice for these literary crackers.

This petite German pen was chosen for its beautiful line quality, and since it's only 4" long when closed, it's a perfect fit for the limited capacity of the cracker tube. Along with the pen we've included a packet of ink cartridges in festive colors, and a set of tiny handmade bookmarks made here in the bindery. For this particular set, the crackers are finished in a classic embossed tartan paper and tied with bright green double-faced satin ribbons--simple and festive!

A bundle of tiny 4" tall duodecimo bookmarks made with
Italian, French and Japanese papers here at the bindery.

According to Wikipedia, "The Christmas Cracker was devised in 1847 by an English confectioner and stationery manufacturer,Thomas J. Smith of London, whilst on holiday in Paris with his family. In the early days, the crackers were called Bon-Bons - meaning lollies or sweets in French - and as a consequence were still quite small in size with a fairly plain wrapping. Later he added a colored outer wrapper and a friction strip – consisting of two overlapping strips of cardboard coated with a small amount of explosive powder - that is inside all ordinary crackers - and joined together, which became known as a "snap" - because when the cracker is pulled apart the strips rub across each other setting off a chemical reaction that produces an audible bang."

An early example of Tom Smith's Christmas Cracker packaging

Upon his return to London, Mr. Smith combined the elements of the bon-bon with a trinket, novelty gift, tissue paper hat and a joke, and the Christmas cracker as we know it was born. The English tradition of placing a cracker at each place setting at Christmas dinner has spread cheerfully across the globe, and is a highlight of the season for countless families, my own included. 

Another example of a box of Tom Smith crackers, this one ca.1891
Participating in this Christmas tradition is a joy for us at the bindery, and we look forward to these small but meaningful projects all year long.    

We send you all our warmest wishes for a wonderful holiday season, a very Merry Christmas,  and hope that the new year brings health, happiness and all good things for you and your families. 


  1. Dear Erika,

    I do like this post.

    I guess it is the green and red (very Christmassy colours) that make tartan so appropriate at Christmas time. Your bespoke crackers look lovely!

    We always had Tom Smith crackers at Christmas - even when we moved to Australia. There they cost a bit more being imported - but were always worth it.

    They don't have Christmas crackers in Germany and they are not allowed to be taken on to an aeroplane so one can't fly over to London and pick some up. We only have them these days if we celebrate Christmas in the UK - which we are this year so hopefully there will still be some left in the shops.

    With best Christmas wishes to you and your family my friend!


    1. Dear Kirk,
      Thank you for your message. Isn't it wonderful that such a charming tradition has lasted all these years? Although Germany has its own beautiful traditions, I'm glad that you'll be in the UK for Christmas this year-- Christmas dinner seems somehow wrong without paper crowns!
      I send my warm wishes for a beautiful Christmas to you and yours, Kirk!


  2. Dear Erika - those are beautiful creme de la creme crackers.
    Are crackers generally considered to be part of an American Christmas?
    I haven't bought any this year, daughter-in-law has made us some.
    Thanks for the interesting history of the cracker, and also the charming illustrations.

    1. Dear Rosemary,
      Thank you for your message and kind words. Where we are, Christmas crackers are very popular-- I'd guess that in the larger cities the tradition is more common than in the more rural parts of the country. We happen to have quite a few English and Scottish friends in our little town, and the commissions for crackers at the bindery began with them, and have spread by word of mouth. It's such fun to make them, as I'm sure Daughter-in-Law will agree! The possibilities for treats and trinkets are nearly endless... I think for my own family, a Hobbit theme will be appropriate this year! Have a Merry Christmas, Rosemary!
      Warm regards,

  3. Hello Erika, Your Christmas crackers look beautifully made, a quality enhancement on an old tradition. I have a question about them--in the illustrations, the crackers are pulled in open air, but don't all the presents inside fall to the floor then? I suppose that's o.k. with candy and jokes, but fountain pens and antiques are another matter.

    1. Dear Jim,
      Thank you for your kind message-- this really is a delightful English tradition, one that continues to grow in popularity here. In my family, we pull all of our crackers at once in a circle around the table, and yes, things tend to fly! The crackers open at the ends rather than at the center, so usually the treats don't go too far. The paper crowns and jokes make good packing material as well! I make sure to include only treats than can handle a bit of air travel like these sturdy and reasonably priced little pens...

      Warm regards and best wishes for the holidays, Jim!

  4. Dear Erika,

    Surely you are producing the most lovely crackers to be found anywhere, and that hardly surprises me. (And as a collector of antique ephemera, I am enjoying the labels that you've found for this posting!

    I wish you and your family a very merry Christmas and all the best for 2013,


    1. Dear Mark,

      Thank you for your very kind message. About 15 years ago, I saw my first super-deluxe crackers at Fortnum & Mason in London, and was smitten with the idea... I can't compete with them, of course, but it's such fun to shop for just the right trinkets for each commission-- another reason to loiter at my favorite antique shops!! I thought you'd enjoy those labels-- the chromolithographs seemed especially familiar!

      Have a wonderful Christmas, Mark!

  5. These look like delightful crackers! And what goodies inside! I'll remember to commission you some next year. I left mine to buy in the last minute and what do you know the good ones are out of stock. I've sent the kids on a mission this afternoon and they returned empty-handed informing me that apparently there is an Age Restriction on Xmas crackers! Oh, the evils of Health and Safety in this country!
    Anyway, Wishing you a Great Xmas x