SIN OF THE MONTH: The history of Tom Smith

SIN OF THE MONTH • BY ABBY BARDI

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”  — William Morris

When I lived in England twenty-something years ago, I especially loved the winter holiday season. In our little village, termed by the great socialist designer William Morris “the most beautiful village in England,” Christmas was a fairly low-key event, heralded primarily by Christmas Eve at the vicarage, where the vicar or his wife served a punch containing alcohol that had all been boiled away, and a Christmas Day service in the Saxon church with carols and incense (not a good combination if one has an upper respiratory infection, which one nearly always did).

One year, we had Christmas dinner at the tiny 17th century stone cottage of our neighbors, a Scottish woman married to an Israeli man, both of them Sufis, and they served roast goose with new potatoes and mince pies with brandy butter. After a sumptuous meal, we sat by the fire as the children opened their stockings, which contained mostly clementines (tangerines), and if there was any indication that it was not 1930, or even 1830, I can’t recall it.

It is this experience of Christmas I try to replicate every year. Despite being technically Jewish, I crank up a mix of obscure British carols on the stereo and serve a traditional English dinner, goose and all the trappings (except for mince pies, which I think are vile, though brandy butter helps), and I pretend I still live in an adorable English village where there are no giant inflatable Santas on people’s lawns.

A significant component of the British Christmas experience is the Christmas cracker, a foil-wrapped cardboard cylinder that makes a loud cracking sound when opened, spewing forth a paper crown, a fortune or bad joke, and a small novelty item. It is possible to buy Christmas crackers in a variety of styles, but I always go for the best: Tom Smith Christmas Crackers.

That these crackers are a cut above all other brands is attested to by the narrative printed in gold italic lettering on the outside of their black box: “The History of Tom Smith,” recounts in both English and French the story, or “histoire” if you prefer, of Tom Smith’s rise to the top of the cracker industry, which began in Paris in 1840 with a “bon bon” sugared almond wrapped in tissue paper and by 1847 had “evolved” into the Christmas Cracker.

Tom Smith cracker ad

This history, also recounted on a sheet of glossy paper contained in each individual cracker, goes on to trace the product’s journey from Paris to Finsbury Square in London, where a commemorative drinking fountain now stands, and concludes with this sentence: “Exclusive crackers were also made for the Royal Family and still are to this day.”

I suggest that before purchasing Tom Smith crackers, you read that sentence, about which there are two noteworthy things, with some care: (1) The sentence in no way alleges that the Royal Family are actually using the same crackers you are, though a note on the outside of the box that says, “By appointment to H.M. Queen Elizabeth II suppliers of Christmas Crackers Tom Smith Group Ltd. Wales” implies that they are. (2) “The History of Tom Smith” does not trace the part of the famous cracker’s journey that leads from Finsbury Square to China, where they are now manufactured.

I have always bought Tom Smith crackers in part because if something is good enough for the Queen, it’s good enough for me, but the main reason I have preferred them to other brands has been the quality of their novelty items: instead of some random little piece of plastic rubbish such as ordinary crackers contain, the items in a Tom Smith cracker have always been comparatively well made, amusing, and also, useful: e.g., a shoehorn, a set of tiny screwdrivers, an enormous paper clip. See? Useful.

This year, however, in addition to the above, we also received three unidentifiable items: some things that may or may not be golf tees; a black plastic teardrop dangling from a thread; and a metal spring with a metal circle attached to it. There was no indication of what these objects were or how they might be used, and one thing is certain: they in no way resembled the deck of cards, the chess board, or the pen also pictured on the exterior of the box.

Sure there are plenty of things to be outraged about as we move into 2012, but for some reason, we really took umbrage at this. It was obvious to us that Tom Smith Ltd. had been resting on its laurels while at the same time, cutting costs, continuing to comport themselves as if their crackers were of the same high standard as in past years but in fact, now including solely the less desirable items. The metal spring was particularly offensive, given that it was probably a rejected piece of some sort of machine housed in the same Chinese factory that churns out the cracker favors.

So many things in life have been so sadly reduced by the economic crisis of the past few years and its concomitant belt tightenings, but somehow, though I now see this as delusional, I had been under the impression that I was safe with Tom Smith Christmas Crackers. Budget cuts to education have resulted in my not having had a real pay raise in years, but I can live with that. What I cannot live with is a small black plastic thing in the shape of a teardrop. “What is this?” I inquired plaintively, holding it up for scrutiny. No one knew.

My son, who is in law school, helped me compose a complaint letter to Tom Smith Ltd. He informed me that a good complaint letter must always end with the sentence, “We are committed in our support of the ___ brand; however, we will need to be assured that substantive changes are being made if we are to continue as customers.” As I typed this, inserting “Tom Smith” in all the relevant spaces, he perused once more “The History of Tom Smith” and said to the eponymous box as if the great Tom Smith himself were with us, “Hey, don’t just sit back and try to rest on your brand. Don’t just go around telling everyone you’re great. You used to be great. So do something great. Be great.” He held up the metal spring with its inexplicable matching hoop. “I mean, what the hell is this?” he asked the box. The box, convinced of its own greatness, stared back at him smugly and did not respond.

cracker trash

The bottom of the cracker barrel. Photo by Abby Bardi.

Follow Abby Bardi’s sins on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/Sinofthemonth

About the Author

Abby Bardi
Takoma Park expatriate Abby Bardi explores the wickedness of modern life in her Voice column, "Sin of the Month." Born and raised in Chicago, Abby has worked as a singing waitress in Washington, D.C., an English teacher in Japan and England, a performer on England’s country and western circuit, and, most recently, as a professor at Prince George’s Community College. Author of "The Book of Fred," (Washington Square Press: Simon & Schuster 2001), she is married with two children and lives in Ellicott City, Maryland.

2 Comments on "SIN OF THE MONTH: The history of Tom Smith"

  1. Follow me on Twitter @Sinofthemonth

  2. The teardrop is a keyring: thread the loop throught the hole in the top of your key, or keys (looks sturdy enought for only two keys), then thread the key(s) through the loop that is now on the other side of the key(s).

    The metal spring is a gag, which I originally saw several decades ago when one was made of woven rattan: hold the ring and ask some unsuspecting person to put a finger in the opening at the other end. then tell the person to remove the finger. impossible as the ring will (if I have solved this correctly) compress and tighten around the finger.

    Voila! Mysteries solved. And I majored in humanities at university.

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