Saturday #25 was my fourth day in Australia and my first Saturday in Sydney. Falling less than a week before Christmas, it was what I would call a “taking care of business” kind of day. I left the hostel at 10:00 a.m. with a long list of things to pick up. First stop: the upscale department store, David Jones.
I should backtrack and say that after four days in the city I’ve had a chance to explore the Central Business District (called “CBD” and never “downtown”) and the King’s Cross area where I’m staying and where I will spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve with friends Randall Pearce and Manfred Unterfenger. On Wednesday I had dinner with Randall while Manfred attended his staff Christmas party. As I was about to leave, I asked Randall what I could bring on Christmas Day.
“Oh, just bring some wine,” he said.
“Of course I’ll bring wine – that’s a given – but give me another task,” I said. I have lots of time on my hands and a big shopping list will give me a chance to explore the city, I thought.
“Okay then, you can bring the bon-bons.”
“Any particular type of candies?” I asked.
“No, not candies. Bon-bons. You know… Christmas crackers.”
“Oh, okay,” I said to myself. I can get crackers at ANY grocery store. Saltines are boring. Ritz and Triscuits would do in a pinch. Ry-Krisps and Ryvitas are a bit more “organic” but surely there must be some type of cracker that would be a bit more of a treat.
“Challenge accepted. Crackers it is,” I said. “Expect home-baked. Maybe gluten free,” I yelled back up the stairs as I stepped onto the front porch and closed the door behind me.
Randall rushed to the balcony and yelled down, “Not crackers as in biscuits. Bring Christmas crackers… for the table.”
“Right,” I said, trying to sound like I knew what he was talking about.
Thankfully Wikipedia had this to say about the subject: “Christmas crackers – also known as bon-bons – are part of Christmas celebrations primarily in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Commonwealth countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.” This was news to me.
You’re probably wondering how I got through 51 Christmases without coming in contact with a Christmas cracker. The answer is really quite simple: Christmas is all about tradition and Christmas crackers simply weren’t one of my family traditions. Until this year I’ve attended at least one family gathering each year for 51 consecutive years. We don’t do crackers and I haven’t attended other people’s family dinners, so my experience with crackers is nil.
It’s not like the Hamilton’s don’t have Christmas traditions. When I was growing up in a small town north of Toronto, we generally cut our own Christmas tree. What’s more traditional than hooking up the horse and sleigh and heading into the bush to cut the perfect Scotch Pine or Blue Spruce? If that’s not a scene straight out of an Anne Murray CBC Christmas Special, I don’t know what is. And of course we did nothing of the sort.
My father actually owned an antique McLaughlin cutter and half a dozen horses that showed considerably more “giddy-up-go” at the sound of jingle bells than the crack of a harness driver’s whip, but I digress. In hindsight, I think my parents were procrastinators to some extent. I remember years when they simply forgot to pick up a tree before the Lions Club tree lot was completely empty. One thing my father never forgot to do was make the 13-mile daily trip to a neighbouring town to collect the cash from a car wash that he owned. He often did this after dinner. And in December the cover of darkness was the perfect time to harvest a tree that he had been keeping his eye on all year. The fact that said tree was growing beside a rural side road was a minor issue that he did his best to keep from my mother.
Now, I use the term “tree” rather loosely as my dad often returned with something that would best be described as a Christmas bush. One year he did procure a perfect tree but my mother got upset when she found a tag on it that read “Blue Ridge Landcaping. Water daily for 2 months after planting.” “Are you sure this didn’t have lights on it?” she remarked.
Another year my dad returned with a tall but hideous tree with a band of orange spray-paint on the trunk. My brother said that it had been tagged for removal by Ontario Hydro. I wanted to believe that it was just “pre-decorated” as my dad claimed.
Besides holiday baking and producing a great turkey dinner, my mom’s best holiday tradition was making an 8’ wide wreath that she hung on the front of our house. Each year she cut cedar boughs from the trees that lined a neighbouring farmer’s lane way (with the farmer’s permission, of course). She tied the greenery to a large circular metal form and then decorated it with dozens of coloured balls and a string of lights that was 100’ long. A large red velvet bow completed the wreath. It’s safe to say that my mother was artistically inclined and multi-talented. She was, after all, a charter member of The Lemonville Hookers. (What else would you call a group of a dozen middle-aged women who met weekly at the Lemonville Town Hall to work on hooked rugs and sculptured wall hangings?)
Another long-standing tradition was spending Christmas Eve with the neighbours on Harold, Edward and Schell Streets. You could count on Marg Burkholder to bring 147 types of cookies and squares and Connie Redshaw to supply the cocktail wieners in barbecue sauce, her famous banana and peanut butter pinwheel sandwiches, and every kid’s worst nightmare – eggnog. There was always a large punch bowl full of eggnog garnished with a sprinkle of cinnamon and a sprig of real holly. Mickey Redshaw knew that eggnog wasn’t for everyone and thankfully he’d have a bottle of IGA brand cola or a Labatt’s 50 in your hand before Connie could guilt you into the eggnog.
But even the Burkholders and Redshaws – families who possessed every imaginable Christmas decoration – either didn’t have Christmas crackers or if they did, they were reserved for family dinners. Until I did some research, I wasn’t even aware that a traditional cracker should “pop” when pulled apart and it should contain a small gift, a paper hat, and a joke or riddle.
After a few minutes of research I was able to find several Sydney stores that stocked crackers of various sizes. One store offered a set of six “luxury” crackers for $16. I figured that since my only contribution to a dinner for eight was going to be a few crackers, I should probably spend a bit more than $2.66 per person. I figured that I’d start with the most exclusive store in town and could always move downscale if that proved to be too expensive.
When I finally located the decorations department on the 7th floor at David Jones I was shocked to find the shelves practically empty. A clerk showed me their last box of crackers. She said they had stocked three different sizes, but all that was left was one box of teeny-tiny crackers – each no bigger around than my finger and about three inches long. Three inches isn’t going to excite anyone at this party so I decided to keep looking.
As I retraced my steps to a junior department store that I had passed earlier, I noticed a display in the window of Eckersley’s craft supply store. I had an idea. Within 10 minutes I had purchased everything that I needed to make my own crackers – chemically treated cardboard strips that produce the “pop” when pulled apart, two 6’ lengths of cardboard tube, crepe paper, ribbon, scissors, box cutters, markers, and a pad of kitschy sticky notes. Now all I needed was something to put inside the crackers.
I decided on a “black and white” theme and went from there. The Apple Store was just around the corner so a set of white ear buds was a good start. Next came a box of ‘Panda’ Pocky (candy sticks) from a Japanese specialty store. I found locally made chocolates wrapped in glossy white paper at a chocolatier in the Strand Arcade. A trip to Chinatown yielded an assortment of gourmet licorice pieces. Instead of the traditional paper hat I went with black Chippendale’s-style bowties from a joke store. There was still room for an airline sized bottle of booze, and since Jack Daniels comes with a black and white label, that was an easy decision. I cleaned the last eight bottles from the shelf at Mister Liquor on Victoria Street. Randall and Manfred’s dog Boris is part of the family so he too got a cracker. I found poop-and-scoop bags printed with tiny black and white dog paws and a black bowtie that attaches to a dog’s collar. Perfect!
I spent the evening of Saturday #25 in my room at the hostel working on the crackers (and a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc). A dozen box cutter blades were broken in the process but I eventually produced the 24 pieces of tube required to make eight rather large crackers. I had lots of the cardboard “pop” mechanisms so I set a few off just to see how loud they were. And they were loud.
After the third girl walked by my door and glanced in at these long cardboard tubes laid out on the bed, I decided that this project best be done in secret. The last thing I needed was a visit from a SWAT team and the (pipe) bomb squad.
POST SCRIPT: The crackers were a big hit on Christmas day. Everyone agreed that the trinkets usually contained in store bought crackers were either broken when opened, broken after a few minutes of play, or lost by the time the table was cleared. If anyone is looking for a seasonal business, may I suggest custom made Christmas crackers? My first attempt was pretty lame but you could certainly take this old Commonwealth tradition to a new level with a bit of practice and imagination. We can talk royalty fees after you hit the jackpot with this one.