Usually in November Victoria Wolf and her friends would be debating which restaurant to choose for their boozy Christmas party.
“We do all the standard things: turkey and trimmings,” she said. “And then we do a secret Santa in the afternoon and one of us has to dress up as Santa. It’s always very jolly and there’s a little bit of wine involved and everyone has a really nice time.”
Not this year, of course. The group of 14 – all in their late 20s, friendships formed at University College London and solidified in south London – are siloed in their homes, cut off by the pandemic. Some are abroad, like Victoria, who is in Germany.
DIY Christmas crackers are the answer. Victoria has arranged for individual crackers, filled with in-jokes and personalised gifts, to be sent to each of her friends’ homes, to be pulled during a virtual secret Santa party one evening in December.
“Video is awkward,” she said. “I thought if I can find someone who will send one cracker to each and every one of us at home, then we can have a cracker moment all together – we can all wear the hat. And maybe that will be a sort of glue for the call and help us feel a bit more connected.”
Fill-your-own Christmas crackers have been growing in popularity in recent years with a number of small companies starting up to meet demand, as well as larger retailers including Lakeland and John Lewis.
Tony Davison, the owner of House of Crackers, a small specialist firm in West Sussex, said the idea of sending crackers as gifts had become popular with people who were not able to see their family. “A lot of older people, especially the ones on their own, fill the crackers and personalise them,” he said. “This year in particular. It’s a way of being at the table without actually being there. If you send a cracker, it’s going to be quite a big part of the day. You’ll bring to mind the person that’s sent it.”
Davison said he either makes bespoke crackers or supplies kits for people to fill them with their own gifts and personalised jokes. “People were a bit sick of some of the crap you get,” he said. “Often it’s something practical, like a USB charger.”
Crackers are said to have been invented in 1847 by Tom Smith, a confectioner from London’s east end who saw that his Parisian counterparts had wrapped sugared almond bonbons in tissue. He eventually added toys and the exploding snap, which had existed for some decades, and the traditional cracker was born.
“There is quite a demand for individual crackers,” Davison said. “As well as for couples. Christmas can be lonely for some people.”
Age UK is concerned about the likely rise of loneliness among millions of older people this year, many of whom may not be able to see their children or grandchildren because of the risk of contracting coronavirus.
Caroline Abrahams, the charity’s director, said: “It’s an extremely tough time for older people right now, many of whom are worried they are looking ahead to one of the loneliest Christmases they’ve ever known. This means we all need to rally round to lift their spirits – if you’re unable to visit older relatives or friends in person there’s still plenty you can do to show you care, and you don’t have to spend a fortune either. Try sending Christmas cards, letters or personalised gifts or make a phone or video call – it will probably make someone’s day.”