The rubbish jokes inside crackers are the one thing that absolutely make Christmas for me. I’d rather have no tree, no turkey, even no presents, than no crackers. Nothing is as Christmassy as those little silly cardboard tubes.
The bang is fine. It’s enjoyable, but nobody would miss it, particularly. The little cracker gifts are pointless – or the ones I get are: the person I’m next to always gets something good, like a tiny screwdriver set, while I am fobbed off with a cellophane fish that purports to read my mind – but that’s also fine. The paper hats, go for it, fill your festive boots. They’re always slightly too small for my colossal ginger head, but never mind.
But the jokes. The jokes are where the magic lies. The jokes are what make Christmas. Middling quality, always based around a tenuous bit of (often seasonal) wordplay, presented on a rolled-up slip of paper alongside some clipart holly. It’s a brilliant, crap tradition, everyone around the table delivering their rubbish joke in turn, generally to laughs accompanied by groans (my favourite combination of sounds in the world) or baffled head-shakes. Brilliant.
I have young nephews who will decide – before reading their joke – that it’s hilarious. They’ll read it out with the worst timing imaginable, mangling a few unfamiliar words, barely able to get anything out over a growing hysteria, then collapse in spasms of gleeful mayhem when they get to the end. What they’ve just said hasn’t made any sense at all. But they knew it was a joke, so it was funny, and they’re laughing. It’s beautiful, and nonsensical, and I love it.
“There’s a solidarity in those moments, a unity, everyone linked by the glorious crapness of cracker jokes."”
This is a real cracker joke: “What do snowmen sing at parties? Freeze a jolly good fellow!” That sounds initially like it makes sense but stands up to no scrutiny whatsoever. Why would they sing that? They don’t need to freeze anyone. But it doesn’t matter! Everyone laughs and we move on. Does a mince spy really hide in the bakery at Christmas? If you cross a vampire and a snowman do you really get frostbite? Did the turkey really join a band because of its drumsticks?
A few years ago, I had a short, doomed, appalling attempt at becoming a comedian. (My total career earnings came to £20.) One of the many reasons my career failed was that this was the type of joke I’d tell – and believe me, you can’t do five minutes of Christmas cracker jokes in front of an audience of drunk people. They definitely aren’t wondering: “I don’t know, what is the difference between a piece of self-assembly office equipment and your bottom?” A few people would charitably shout “What?” or “I don’t know” but for the most part, it would be joke, silence, punchline, more silence, next joke. (It’s “One has files and parts” by the way, and got no laughs.)
On stage, there’s a hierarchy. But around the Christmas dinner table, everyone’s in it together. Paper hats and crap jokes. People who never tell jokes telling a joke, and everyone laughing with them. And it’s win-win. If your joke gets a genuine laugh, you own it. If it stinks the place out, that’s M&S’s fault. Everybody gets a moment in the spotlight then the spotlight moves on.
There’s a solidarity in those moments, a unity, everyone linked by the glorious crap-ness of cracker jokes. And what could be more Christmassy than that?