Leeds nostalgia: Ancient origins of the Christmas cracker

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An article published in the Yorkshire Evening Post’s Christmas Number in 1937 carried a story on the origin of pithy jokes being included inside Christmas crackers.

It charted their evolution back to ancient Egypt, where one legend stated the great Sphynx once asked: “What animal walks on four legs in the morning, two at midday and three in the evening?”

A Babylonian riddle ran thus: “There is a great temple supported by a single column, the column is surrounded by 12 towns, each of these has 30 buttresses and beside each buttress stands two women, one white, one black, who measure its circumference. What is the temple?”

The answer to the first riddle is ‘man’, the second ‘the world’ and its annual calendar. The article notes: “By the end of the 16th Century, the evolution of the riddle - having begun in a serious way in the interests of secrecy… had become nothing more than leg-pulling.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, one so-called riddle ran: “How many calves tails would it take to reach all the way to the moon?”, the answer being, “one if the tail was long enough.”

While riddles were often brought out at parties, it seems their pithy descendants eventually found a permanent home inside the humble Christmas cracker. The modern riddle - appearing garrulous and trite by comparison - took root amid the frivolity of Christmas like some invasive weed, enabling those disposed to becoming inebriated in the exuberance of their own verbosity to regurgitate such whimsical utterances as: “Why is a Christmas pudding like a river? Both have currents.” And “When is father Christmas at his best? When he’s at the top of the tree.”

It was a short jump to the hum-drum cracker.

The article says: “The riddle has come down to us through the centuries, has perplexed kings and puzzled sages. It indicates the mind of man is a strange mixture of seriousness and fooling and it denotes that all through history we have not been happy unless we are juggling with words.

“A riddle requires thought and nothing is more necessary in an age when most of the thinking is being done for us.”