Press Clippings - Toronto Star

Making Paper Hats at Elves' Best Christmas Crackers. Article written by Nancy White, Toronto Star News

Atsuko Coombs, a part-time teacher, makes paper hat crowns at Elves' Best

Custom-made Christmas Crackers
Offer Gift of Peace

by Nancy J. White - Living Reporter
Tues., Dec. 20, 2011

" ’Twas Christmas crunch time at Gillian McCrostie’s cracker factory. That’s cracker of the holiday, pull-the-ends-to-get-the-goodies sort and that’s factory in the loosest sense.

In her Bracebridge basement apartment, baskets of gold-wrapped chocolates, red-striped mints and snowmen tree ornaments crowd the dining space. The spare bedroom — forget the bed — is packed with piles of bright paper hats, trays of joke cards and rows of cardboard tubes waiting to be stuffed. From a door frame, spools of ribbon curl down like little girls’ curls.

Two part-time workers are gluing and assembling with elf-like efficiency. Bing Crosby is doing his part, crooning “O Come All Ye Faithful” on the radio.

It’s funny how life works out. McCrostie, 60, originally set out to be a nun. “And I ended up as Santa Claus,” she says with a nod to her workshop.

McCrostie, silver-haired, her rimless glasses atop her head, recalls years she spent searching for fulfillment. A government job as a community worker wasn’t enough. She researched religious life, visiting convents and, in her mid 30s, joined the Sisters of our Lady of Sion in Toronto. She lasted two years.

“Something was missing.”

She scraped together a living by making paper-collage greeting cards and discovered joy in the artistry. Then one day in a Toronto department store, she spotted a package of pretty Christmas crackers only to discover one of the treats inside was a penknife.

“That doesn’t belong in a Christmas cracker,” she says, shaking her head. As a kid, she had loved the crepe paper ones her mother laid out on the good china.

And so, 12 years ago, McCrostie started GillianCrackers . She made 111 that first Christmas, but business has grown steadily over the past seven years thanks to the magic of the Internet.

“Bless Google’s heart,” she intones.

This year, she’ll produce about 12,000 crackers, each filled and wrapped by hand, to celebrate all occasions — she’s expanded into Hannukah, weddings and birthdays — but the bulk of business is still Christmas.

By the front door, a pile of packed orders are ready for mailing to families in California, Iowa, Florida and Newfoundland. Many of her customers are repeats, a few are now cyber-friends.

“We really love you, Gillian,” wrote one woman from Fountain Valley, Calif., in an email. “You’ve been like a member of our family for bringing the gift of crackers every Christmas to our American/Irish family.” McCrostie’s own family now consists of one brother who lives in Quebec. Her parents and other brother have passed on.

A search that was spiritual and occupational has become familial as well. She has found her missing “something.”

Mainly a British tradition, the Christmas cracker was invented in 1847 by London confectioner Tom Smith. When pulled to open, a strip of chemical-laced paper in the tube makes a crackling sound. Today, most crackers in stores are mass-produced in Asia.

“I’m the only custom-cracker maker in Canada,” says McCrostie, busily padding around in red and green socks. Her products sell from $6.50 to $30 for the luxury model, a sort of cracker de la crème.

She buys North American supplies as much as possible — Quebec mints, Toronto fine chocolates, Muskoka pewter ornaments — for their quality and to support Canadian jobs. She’d like to find a workshop space big enough so she can expand and hire more seasonal workers.

In June, McCrostie starts Christmas, cutting paper, researching holiday jokes and puzzles. Orders begin surfacing in August.

On this day, there are 200 crackers to be made. Karen Hinze, 50, a cracker creator between shifts as a school bus driver, works on an order for 10 headed to Missouri.

“Oh, do you need more jokes?” McCrostie asks, offering a tray of them. For variety’s sake, the tubes need different hats, puzzles, jokes and ornaments. A cellophane bag crisis is averted after McCrostie wades into a labyrinth of boxes and discovers extras. “There’s always a Plan B,” she says calmly.

Atsuko Coombs, 42, a mother of two young children, glues strips of delicate red paper into paper crowns.

“I imagine everyone young and old wearing these around the table and feeling happy,” says Coombs.

Crosby, ever helpful, is back on the radio with “Deck the Halls.”

McCrostie stays merry despite working 18-hour days. For breaks, she walks along the Muskoka River, listening to birds and smelling pine trees. “That’s where I get what I need to share the spirit of Christmas.”

Back at her desk — a dining table shoved against the wall — her laptop is always on and she constantly eyes her email account for orders. Customers also write her about family births, deaths and new pets.

“That’s how personal the business is. This makes up for all the family I don’t have,” says McCrostie. “It’s my way of sharing what I can.”

Late at night, when all is silent, her last task is to drop a signed Christmas card and an extra mint into every outgoing order.

McCrostie will spend Christmas Day alone. She declines invitations from friends, preferring to unplug the phone and computer and finally sleep.

“At the heart of all this — I may start crying thinking about it — is my need for a contemplative life,” she says, wrapping a cardboard tube in rich red paper. “It’s so much a part of my soul. There’s a cycle to this work, an inner peace to doing this.” "