History of 5 Christmas traditions

PUBLISHED: 18:18 23 November 2020 | UPDATED: 18:31 23 November 2020

Cracker making in progress at the then new Smith's Salhouse Road factory in November 1964. Photo: Archant archive

Cracker making in progress at the then new Smith's Salhouse Road factory in November 1964. Photo: Archant archive

When were Christmas crackers made in Norwich?

Cracker, crackers everywhere! Teetering piles of boxes and ingredients characterise this working line at Tom Smiths in 1964. Photo: Archant archiveCracker, crackers everywhere! Teetering piles of boxes and ingredients characterise this working line at Tom Smiths in 1964. Photo: Archant archive

Every year the advent of the festive season is eagerly awaited, whether for the singing of carols, the sending of Christmas cards or the trimming of the tree. But many of these traditions have wonderful origins that are less familiar.

Take our Christmas cards, the first one was printed in England for Sir Henry Cole in 1843. He was a busy man looking to save time with his own Christmas letters, but also interested in encouraging the expansion of the postal system. One thousand copies of the card were sold at one shilling each. The first commercial Christmas card came three years later, featuring a drawing of family members happily toasting each other with glasses of wine. It wasn’t until the 1860s that the production of cards accelerated, bringing in its wake cheaper printing methods.

Take our Christmas crackers. They originated in the 1840s with a certain Tom Smith who was the owner of a sweet shop in London. He discovered that people liked sugar almonds and, while in France, he came across a range of sweets wrapped up in a twisted piece of paper which were extremely popular prompting Tom to copy them.

Spotting that young men were getting them for their sweethearts Tom placed various ‘love messages’ on little bits of paper inside the wrapping. By 1846 he began to concentrate on the Christmas market and replaced sweets with pop toys and new items. He liked the idea of making a wrapping that could then be pulled apart. And thus we now have the cracker as we know it today.

Trade and Industry -- Manufacturing  A busy scene at Tom Smith's Cracker Factory on Salhouse Road, Norwich, December 1984  Photo: Archant archiveTrade and Industry -- Manufacturing A busy scene at Tom Smith's Cracker Factory on Salhouse Road, Norwich, December 1984 Photo: Archant archive

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Competitors were on the case. They saw what was happening and made their own versions. Caley’s, the famous Norwich chocolate and confectionery firm, with its factory in Chapelfield, was one firm that in 1898 included crackers in its range. Although lacking the same output as Tom Smith’s, Caley’s crackers were soon to become world-famous. By the end of the Second World War, the rivals merged, with Caley’s crackers now belonging to the Tom Smith brand. It moved its factory to Salhouse Road in Norwich and, by the 1980s, produced around 50 million crackers a year until its closure in 1998. These days its crackers are made in South Wales.

Three other fascinating and little known facts about our Christmas traditions include a saint, a religious reformer and a British king.

It was actually St. Francis of Assisi who introduced Christmas carols to formal church services. Centuries later Oliver Cromwell then banned carols as he thought that Christmas should be a very solemn day and he only tolerated as celebrations a sermon and a prayer service.

The Christmas tree was first decorated with lights supposedly in the 16th century by Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer. He was so taken with the Christmas night sky that he wished to bring ‘the lights of the stars’, as he called them, into the home of his family. He used the candlelit tree as a symbol of Christ’s heavenly home.

As for the dinner itself goose used to be the customary Christmas fare right up until the moment Henry VIII took it upon himself to tuck into a turkey. And as for mince pies they were once shaped like mangers and are thought to date back to the sweetmeats formerly presented to the Vatican on Christmas Eve.

Now we can eagerly await the advent of the festive season to tell others what we know about it all!

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