What A Cracker!
In 1969, John Julius Norwich, the popular historian, gathered together the favourite snippets he’d come across in the last 365 days and turned it into a Christmas greeting, a short charming pamphlet filled with oddities and felicities. Initially just a treat for his friends, his Christmas Crackers rapidly turned into a huge word-of-mouth success.
When some of the crackers were rounded up and published as a book he found curious readers everywhere. The arrival of his latest ‘Christmas Cracker’ became as essential a part of the English Christmas as holly and mistletoe.
As a young man Norwich had joined the Foreign Service, and his love of architecture and European life eventually led to him becoming chairman of the Venice in Peril Fund. He had a brilliant eye for a story and telling detail, and his Crackers were full of jokes, quotes, warmth and wit. More than that, they were erudite, charming and memorably eccentric observations.
The best of the Christmas Crackers were collected by the decade and were a much-loved publishing event. He also famously wrote a short but hilarious version of the 12 Days of Christmas that was illustrated by Quinten Blake. I’m sure I had this as a child.
Some of my favourite Crackers are obsolete definitions; ‘Carphology’ is a term meaning ‘delirious fumbling with the bedclothes.’ And here’s Shirley Temple on yuletide; ‘I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.’
I’ve just noticed that Mr Norwich, who died two years ago aged 88, has a final ‘Best Of’ collection of the Christmas Crackers assembled by his daughter Artemis. I’ve ordered it for myself as a belated Christmas present.