Tried & Tested: PULLING POWER

Sex toys, soap and Winnie the Pooh. This year's crackers cater to all tastes, but which make the biggest bang?
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The Independent Culture
Christmas crackers were invented by confectioner Tom Smith nearly 150 years ago; his first cracker was basically a paper-wrapped bonbon and motto. Later, crackling logs on a Christmas fire inspired him to add the festive "snap" thought essential by our panel of cracker testers. The sweets were gradually replaced by small gifts.

THE PANEL

Participating in a veritable orgy of cracker-pulling were adults Matt Innes, Piers Kotting, Becky Munford and Nigel Floyd, as well as younger panel members Adam (6) and Jennifer Green (7).

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 selection is an attempt to cover a wide scale of expectations in different price brackets. In assessing each box, we also paid attention to "pullability", quality of hat and motto, and amusement value to children bored by a long meal.

**BOOTS WALLACE AND GROMIT

pounds 15 for 12 (pounds 1.25 each)

Slavish admiration for cartoon characters can be a boon for cracker manufacturers - but it can also lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointment. These Wallace and Gromit crackers each sport pictures of Nick Park's expressive man and dog as does the box - "but Wallace looks miserable and Gromit is annoyed about something", said Matt Innes. The box itself can be snipped up into a matching game, but the diamond-shaped pieces are so small, we doubted it would be possible to play. The pretty foil and tissue hats split on our fat heads. Instead of jokes, there are facts about Wallace and Gromit, which are "neither funny nor festive", according to Nigel Floyd. Only Becky Munford was thrilled with the gifts, perhaps because she found a plastic figure of Shaun the Sheep, whereas other members of the panel complained that the keyrings, pens and stickers displayed "little variety". "There's lots of potential here that hasn't been realised," said Piers Kotting.

****MARKS AND SPENCER CRACKERS WITH NAPKINS AND PLACE CARDS

pounds 14 for 12 (pounds 1.17 each)

"It seems M&S can be relied on for more than just safe underwear," said Becky Munford in response to these "rather grown-up" (Nigel Floyd) crackers, which are entirely co-ordinated with matching hats, napkins and place cards. There is even a matching jigsaw puzzle as a gift. "They're smart, in a suburban sort of way," said Piers Kotting, who felt the trivia questions (eg "Which king had a round table?") were patronising. But since the gifts are thoughtful and well-made, the overall view was that this box represented good value.

**WOOLWORTHS GIANT PARTY CRACKER

pounds 9.99 each

"Wow! Look at that," was the initial response to these metre-long mega- crackers, but the admiration soon gave way to childish squabbling, since only two people got to pull it. Matt Innes dubbed it fit "only for a nursing home, where the inmates are too weak to pull the cracker for themselves". Six lots of cracker contents (in this case blow-outs, hats, traditional bad jokes and miniature plastic toys) are supplied - hygienically encased in a plastic bag. "That's no good," declared Becky Munford. "The whole point is that the hat, joke and gift fall straight into the cranberry sauce." In general, then, a giant cracker was thought not as much fun as pounds 10 worth of individual crackers, although a single (albeit large) cracker wrapper could be said to be more environmentally friendly. In its defence, the cracker's toys were amusing; Piers Kotting assembled a tiny tipper truck, and a dice game, and skittles with a ball the size of a pea were much prized.

**PAPERCHASE FLITTER CRACKERS

pounds 13.50 for 6 (pounds 2.25 each)

Made of trendy brown paper with flitter (the new glitter) snowflake motifs, these regular-sized crackers were thought to have some of the "coolest packaging" (Becky Munford), but were not popular with the panel because of the high cost per cracker and whimsical gifts. A transparent tubular bracelet full of purple and red glitter pleased the children, but a pearl hair slide was dubbed "appalling" by Piers Kotting and a mini teddy on a loop joined the heap of useless debris on the floor.

***MARKS & SPENCER LUXURY MINI CRACKERS

pounds 10 for 6 (pounds 1.66 each)

These gorgeous, dark gold and red miniature crackers with tartan bows struck us as rather lovely table decorations. They contain "gifts for the more mature cracker-puller", such as elastic cufflinks, a keyring which doubles as a tape measure, and silvery earrings in a velvet pouch. Given the crackers' diminutive size, the mottoes and hats are tucked away in the box.

***WOOLWORTHS WINNIE THE POOH

pounds 4.99 for 6 (83p each)

These Winnie the Pooh themed cracked were applauded for being good value as well as "uncomplicated and endearing" (Piers Kotting). There are no jokes, only facts about A A Milne's stories. But there are "lovely paper clips" (Becky Munford) made from sturdy white plastic and decorated with Pooh, Eeyore and co, or six char- acter stickers as gifts. "Is this fair?" Matt Innes wanted to know, eyeing up the paper clips anxiously. Consultation with the children revealed that it was. "Stickers are great," said Adam Green. "You can put them on your lunchbox, your bike, your pencil tin ..."

**BOOTS TOILETRIES

pounds 3.50 each

The concept of these individually boxed crackers containing Boots toiletries seemed a good one, but the price implied classier gifts than the "cheap hotel hand cream and bath pearls" (Nigel Floyd) which emerged from the flimsy cardboard crackers. In fact, the quality of products was not so bad - it's the necessary non-breakable plastic bottles which make them appear "tacky" (Becky Munford). There are general knowledge questions, but no surprises - "Even the gift is pictured on the box," protested Matt Innes. Piers Kotting was dismissive of the whole idea: "It's just too up-your-bum thirtysomething," he said.

*****MARKS & SPENCER TEDDY CRACKERS

pounds 10 for 6 (pounds 1.66 each)

Not merely for arctophiles (if you don't know what this is, check out the mildly interesting teddy facts inside these crackers), the winning box of crackers in our survey exhibited "sheer class" (Nigel Floyd) in every aspect of their design. The crackers themselves are adorned with bears and tied off with real ribbon. Teddy place cards are supplied and inside each cracker is a cute hat, teddy bear fact and "awesome presents" (Matt Innes) including plastic scissors to cut out the (do-able) teddy matching game on the box, coloured pencils and a pastel teddy fridge magnet. The ultimate test was that, three days after our marathon cracker-pulling session, these gifts were the only ones still cherished; all the others were in the bin.

*PAPERCHASE MINI CRACKERS

pounds 5 for 6 (83p each)

These miniature crackers come in rainbow colours or gold or silver. They were thought "pretty, in a modern way" (Becky Munford), but fell at the first hurdle when it was discovered that they have a poor bang and contain only silver charms, such as horseshoes, bells and hearts, which seem more appropriate to a wedding. "Hardly charming at the price," punned Nigel Floyd.

****WOOLWORTHS SNOWMAN

pounds 3.99 for 12 (33p each)

Despite a prejudice that these "supervalue" crackers would be subject to odious comparisons with many of the more expensive products sampled, they were instantly acclaimed as "the only ones that pulled properly" (Matt Innes) due to their construction of twisted crepe paper, rather than serrated cardboard. They are decorated with a jolly snowman, contain flimsy tissue paper hats (which are large enough not to tear) and real Christmas cracker jokes. "These are low quality, classic crap, absolutely great," said Nigel Floyd, holding up a plastic spider by way of example and laughing uproariously at the effortless joke: "Q: What do you call a man with a bulldozer on his head? A: Squashed."

****EARLY LEARNING CENTRE, CHILDREN'S CRACKER KIT

pounds 3.99 for 6 (66p each)

Both adults and children were pleased with this flat-packed cracker kit, which provides crepe paper, card stiffeners, snaps, paper hats and jokes for children over the age of five to make up their own crackers. Adam (6) and Jennifer Green (7) enjoyed making them up, achieving good- looking crackers with almost no help. They laughed at the innocent puns ("What do you get when you cross rabbits with leeks? Bunions") and said putting their own gifts inside was "a good idea", even if it took some coaching to find suitable items which were small enough and yet pleasing to adults. The only drawback was the reluctance shown when it was suggested that someone actually pull the home-made crackers. We can only assume that if they are made early enough, the hardship of subsequent destruction won't seem so bad by Christmas Day.

ADULT PARTY CRACKERS

Available as 8 female, 8 male or 8 unisex, pounds 19.95 (pounds 2.49 each), or 1 male and 1 female, pounds 5.95

Marketed as "the ultimate in adult party fun", these allegedly saucy crackers were not appreciated by the panel, even after several bottles of wine. Each cracker contains a novelty, such as a penis-shaped jelly or a keyring containing a condom with the rubric "In case of emergency, break glass"; a strip of paper decorated with graphic sexual jokes which is more of a bandanna than a hat; a smutty verbal gag; and an advertisement for the company's other, similarly themed gifts. The crackers, majoring on genitalia as a motif, struck us as unoriginal. "These add nothing to the sexist crap we see every day," said Becky Munford. "They might be okay for hen and stag parties, but they are un-Christmassy and unfunny," decided Nigel Floyd. Only a whizz around the table by an "energetic (ie wind-up) sperm" raised a few smiles.

STOCKISTS

Own-brand crackers from Boots, Woolworths, Marks & Spencer and Early Learning Centre stores nationwide. For branches of Paperchase, tel: 0171 636 1333; Adult Party Crackers by mail order on 01903 238706. !

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