A CRACKING TIME

With Yuletide just around the corner, how do boxes of our favourite festive amusements compare? Our panel went crackers
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Christmas crackers were invented by confectioner Tom Smith nearly 150 years ago; his first cracker was a paper-wrapped bonbon and motto. Later, crackling logs on a fire inspired him to add the festive "snap" thought essential by our panel of cracker testers. The sweets were gradually replaced by small gifts, a trend now reversed by branded confectionery crackers.

THE PANEL

Participating in a veritable orgy of cracker-pulling were adults Nick Raffin ("Why does everyone say I'm a cynic?"); Andrew Simpson ("I love crackers, me"); Claire Blezard ("It's all packaging really"); Philippa Yeoman ("I think all crackers should have something edible in them"); Robert Farrant ("It's the surprise I like - you can't beat it"); and myself, as well as younger panel members Rebecca Christiansen, seven, and Alexander Holmes, nine.

THE TEST

The modern tendency to exchange relatively expensive gifts at Christmas means that, for many consumers, crackers have evolved into table decorations, and the prettier they are, the better. For others, finding a cheap plastic gift at the centre of so much glitzy wrapping is a disappointment they would rather not pay for. Our cracker selection is an attempt to cover a wide scale of expectations in different price brackets. We paid attention to "pullability", quality of hat and motto, and amusement value to children.

***INDOOR FIREWORK CRACKERS

pounds 8.50 for 12

The concept of indoor fireworks was thought to be most suitable for "little pyromaniacs of about 12", which is not to say that watching tiny chemical trails go up in smoke on your dinner plate is without charm for cracker addicts. Sporting appropriate gold stars on the wrapping and using romantic names ("Northern Lights", "Snake Charmer" etc) for fireworks which often resemble burning aspirins, we found them entertaining for at least three minutes; not bad for the price. "About as interesting as watching the pilot light on your boiler," Nick Raffin said.

*TRIVIA GAME CRACKERS

pounds 10.75 for 10

For some reason, everybody hated these game crackers, which offer you the chance "to impress your friends - and yourselves!" by answering a series of general-knowledge questions. You do get the obligatory tissue- paper hat to wear, but the absence of a gift outraged Claire Blezard ("What - isn't there even one for the winner?") and the final nail in the coffin presented itself when Andrew Simpson read out the question: "Who wrote A Brief History of Time? Stephen Hawkins (sic)".

***SMARTIES CRACKERS

pounds 4.95 for 6

These simple, sweet-filled crackers had one of the most appealing designs, covered as they were in colourful and witty cartoons described as "quite druggie" by Robert Farrant and "quite nice" by the children, who ate the 84g of Smarties in about as many seconds. Three of the snaps failed to explode, but as it was felt that disposable sweets were better value than plastic toys, these crackers got the thumbs up.

****JOHN LEWIS FILL YOUR OWN CRACKERS

pounds 7.95 for six

Despite the best intentions to economise by covering loo-roll tubes with crepe paper, these empty crackers, supplied with snaps, hats and mottoes to stuff inside with your own gift, were thought cheaper than any you could make yourself. "This is a very good idea, and creative, too" said Philippa Yeoman. Claire Blezard thought the gold/brown presentation "very John Lewis, very sensible" but on the whole, these crackers were some of the most popular.

*****JOHN LEWIS CREAM AND GOLD CRACKERS

pounds 35 for 12

Prettily covered in cherubs and antique gold script, these super-luxurious crackers for the exquisitely dressed dinner-table, were acknowledged as expensive, but proceeded to become overall winners because, unsurprisingly, you get what you pay for in the cracker world. A wine collar, corkscrew, proper sewing kit, screwdriver and other solidly useful gifts come with stripey hats and nicely printed cartoons and mottoes. This didn't prevent the panel waxing ironic about the product, however. "Very bourgeois," said one. "Yes, Mrs Bucket [Keeping Up Appearances] would have these," agreed Robert Farrant. "What is this?" Nick Raffin demanded to know of the stripey hats, "last year's wrapping paper recycled, for God's sake." Philippa Yeoman pointed out that, "if you could afford to buy these crackers, you would already have a decent corkscrew."

**PAST TIMES VICTORIAN CRACKERS

pounds 9.95 for 8

I thought the mock decoupage look of these crackers from the Past Times mail-order catalogue just the thing for a Christmas party in an old house, and the name encouraged the testers to suppose the contents would also be in some way Victorian. So it was a bitter disappointment to find that in fact the gifts were modern, even if the whistle was fought over by the children and the packet of seeds was hailed as the best gift from all the crackers. Half the panel loathed the wrapping paper. "It makes me depressed just looking at them," said Philippa Yeoman. "They're like old ladies' things."

**ASPREY STERLING SILVER COLLECTION CRACKERS

pounds 550 for 12

Sublime or ridiculous, these huge crackers from the Bond Street jewellers Asprey are merely the wrapping for a selection of sterling-silver gifts, which offer good value if you were in the market for a champagne swizzle stick, an oversized paper clip or a cased thermometer, as the items retail for rather more in the shop than they do in the crackers. "Hmmm, reassuringly large for the discerning nouveau riche," said Nick Raffin at once. Andrew Simpson hurled the offending cracker across the room, saying it was "preposterous nonsense". Millionaires should note that the 18ct gold collection is available at pounds 5,000 for 12. The crackers contain no jokes; a sad indictment of Asprey's lack of a sense of humour.

**DISNEY CHARACTER CRACKERS

pounds 12.95 for 8

Very jolly-looking and strictly for children, these crackers from Disney provide covetable Mickey, Minnie, Donald and other nicely fashioned plastic figures. These were appreciated by everybody - in fact, if only the Disney characters came in one cracker with the box of Smarties, "that would be the bestest ever" as Rebecca Christiansen said. What wasn't appreciated was the tiresome Disney marketing ploy evident in the replacement of the mottoes with obscure questions about Disney movies (eg "Who supplied the original voice of Donald Duck? Clarence `Ducky' Nash") which children could not possibly answer.

***MAGIC TRICK CRACKERS

pounds 9.95 for 8

Ironically, though the conjuring tricks inside these crackers were almost impossible to perform and resembled a series of plastic bottle tops and a large suppository, this box was hailed as "a good giggle". The adults found the inadequate grammar of the instructions hilarious; would-be conjurors are urged to "distract audience with `patter'," whilst "secretly placing coin in the `secret compartment' ". Everybody liked the damask foil wrappings and the playing-card motifs on the outside of the crackers; they ripped apart nicely, instead of collapsing at severed points as they do in the modern designs.

STOCKISTS

Past Times mail order, tel: 01993 770440; Magic Trick crackers from Science Museum catalogue, tel: 0990 353433; Disney Character crackers from Disney stores nationwide; Asprey crackers from Asprey, London, tel: 0171 493 6767; Smarties from confectioners and supermarkets; Trivia, Indoor Fireworks and John Lewis crackers from branches of John Lewis nationwide.

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