With Christmas almost upon us, it’s the perfect time to start unwrapping the stories behind some of the trimmings and traditions of Yule.
Some of these customs, like the wearing of silly paper hats drawn from the obligatory bonbon along with a bad joke and useless plastic novelty, are relatively modern practices.
It was while sitting by a crackling fire that British confectioner and cake decorator Tom Smith decided to reinvent the bonbon – originally a French creation of sugared almonds in pretty paper twists – and blow away the competition. After some experimentation he created a friction strip coated with a small amount of saltpetre, which created a bang when pulled apart.
Smith’s Bangs of Expectation, which went on the market in 1860, were high-end works of art containing wax dolls with whole wardrobes of clothes, jade Buddhas, real ivory elephants and real jewellery.
By the turn of the century Smith’s company, now run by his three sons, was producing crackers for every occasion. There were crackers for royal tours, crackers to celebrate the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, crackers for store openings.
And Christmas would never be the same.
Fight over wishbone
Less straightforward is the story behind the annual fight over who gets the wishbone from the chicken or turkey.
Like why would anyone think snapping the clavicle bone of a dead bird is lucky? But this tradition predates Christmas, going back to about 900 BC and the Etruscans, who believed hens could divine the future.
Priests would scatter a circle of 20 wedges of grain, each corresponding to a letter of the Etruscan alphabet, and the chicken would be placed in the middle to peck out messages.
When a bird was killed – possibly because of some failure of communication on its part – the furcula, to use the proper name given to the fused bird clavicles, was dried in the sun.
It was thought that by holding it people could still draw some good fortune from the avian oracle.
This practice was adopted by the Romans who, in turn, built roads to disseminate it across Europe, where at some stage lucky bone-holding turned to snapping the thing in two and regarding only the bigger half as being blessed.
The Pilgrims took this tradition and started breaking bones not just at Christmas, but also Thanksgiving.
But being America, it was inevitable someone would decide it was possible to improve upon the turkey’s one wishbone.
Ken Ahroni, the founder of the Lucky Break Wishbone company, came up with the idea of cheap plastic wishbones so that everyone at the festive table, including vegetarians, could share the luck in good conscience.
Ahroni was soon exporting plastic wishbones to Europe, Australia, even Turkey, ranging from fun packs of four to 400 bulk for big occasions.
All was well until the retail giant Sears, Roebuck & Co ordered 1.3 million Lucky Break Wishbones and then reneged, deciding it could get them whipped up by a Chinese company far cheaper.
Sears’ lawyers argued a wishbone was a wishbone and they all looked alike, but didn’t reckon on bird experts who identified differences between a real wishbone and Ahroni’s copyrighted design.
The resulting $1.7 million award to Ahroni proves he’s no goose.