Around the start of December, it’s not unusual to see decorative nutcrackers on store shelves, arranged on mantelpieces, hanging from Christmas trees, and even decorating holiday sweaters. For some, their colorful outfits, hand-painted faces, and tufts of white hair are the very definition of Christmas cheer. But have you ever wondered how these nutcrackers got to be so popular, and why people usually only bring them out at Christmastime? The answer involves German literature, a Russian ballet, and lots of generous American G.I.s.
From Basic to Beautiful
Humans have been using tools to crack nuts for thousands of years. The earliest designs were merely two pieces of wood joined by leather or a metal hinge, but as the centuries progressed, artisans started to create figurative designs for nutcrackers, such as brass crocodiles in India and cast-iron squirrels in England. Wood remained a popular material, and by the 18th century, carvers in Switzerland, Austria, and northern Italy were making fanciful wooden nutcrackers that looked like human and animal heads, sometimes with moving lower jaws.
The nutcrackers best known in America today come from Germany. In fact, they often come from a particular region in Germany, the Erzgebirge — a mountain range near the border with the Czech Republic. Erzgebirge is German for “ore mountains,” and for many years the region was home to rich deposits of silver, tin, uranium, and more. Starting around the early 1700s, as some of the deposits ran out, miners began crafting nutcrackers, toys, and glass ornaments as a way of supplementing dwindling mining income.
By around 1800, the earliest versions of the toy nutcracker dolls so familiar to us today started to appear in Erzgebirge workshops. It’s said that the woodcarvers chose figures of authority for these dolls — soldiers, policeman, politicians — because the common people enjoyed putting toy versions of their overseers “to work” by having them crack the “hard nuts of life.”
Originally, these nutcrackers had no specific association with Christmas, and it’s not clear exactly when such a link began. But the seasonal significance makes some sense when you consider they were created in workshops alongside toys and games that were often given as gifts. Some have also suggested that a link arose because nuts are an important component of German holiday baking.
At some point, nutcrackers also developed connotations of good luck in German folklore. Because nutcrackers bare their teeth, it’s said they’re supposed to function a bit like guard dogs to protect the home and keep evil spirits away.
The Father of the Nutcracker
In 1872, a German named Wilhelm Füchtner — sometimes called the “Father of the Nutcracker” — began using a lathe to reproduce multiples of the same nutcracker designs out of spruce wood. By then, Füchtner wasn’t just creating generic nutcracker figures: He was trying to reproduce a character from German author Heinrich Hoffmann’s 1851 story “King Nutcracker and Poor Reinhold,” in which a poor child dreams of a fairyland of toys, including a nutcracker.
Füchtner’s design became the prototypical nutcracker “king” with the golden crown and the red and yellow or blue and orange color scheme. Originally, the king’s eyes, moustache, and feet were molded out of bread dough, while rabbit fur was used for the hair. However, it was another German short story — by an entirely different Hoffman — that really put the dolls on the world stage.
The Nutcracker Ballet Debuts
These decorative toy nutcrackers might have remained a regional plaything had it not been for the ballet that shares their name, with its famous music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
The story for Tchaikovsky’s ballet — which kicks off when a little girl is given a nutcracker doll for Christmas — was very loosely adapted from an 1816 E.T.A. Hoffmann short story called “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” However, the Russian Imperial Ballet, which commissioned the work, relied on a lighter, French version of Hoffmann’s tale written by Alexandre Dumas. (E.T.A. Hoffmann’s stories tended to be on the darker, more adult side.)
The Nutcracker was first produced at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre on December 18, 1892, but it wasn’t exactly a hit. While reviews were mixed, many of the negative accounts stand out — reviewers thought it was all spectacle and no substance, and overly focused on children. One newspaper called it “a pantomime absurd in conception and execution, which could please only the most uncultured spectators.” Fortunately, that wouldn’t be the last word for The Nutcracker.
The Nutcracker Gets a Second Chance
The ballet went on to have a second life in America. According to the book Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World, by dance scholar and critic Jennifer Fisher, the first full-length professional American production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker took place in 1944 in San Francisco. Russian emigre George Balanchine then staged his influential and much-beloved production of The Nutcracker for the New York City Ballet in 1954. Since then, The Nutcracker has become one of the most-performed ballets in the world, and a fixture at Christmastime.
Yet the ballet itself isn’t the only reason nutcrackers became such a popular collectible. According to historians, G.I.s stationed in Germany during and after WWII began buying the beautifully painted nutcrackers as gifts to send back home. The tradition continued even after Germany split into East and West. The Erzgebirge region was in the East, but its woodworkers exported the dolls to West Germany, where many U.S. soldiers bought them. The sales provided a much-appreciated source of foreign currency for East Germany.
As the 20th century progressed and demand for nutcrackers increased, numerous manufacturers began to produce the toys, and not just in Germany. There was also an explosion of new designs beginning around the 1980s. No longer just Prussian soldiers and kings, these nutcrackers might be cowboys, firemen, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, or one of many other characters. More and more, they were meant for purely decorative purposes. Anyone who tried to use them to crack nuts would be disappointed.
You can now find nutcrackers in almost any form imaginable, and not just in full-size versions: They’re also on earrings and keychains and inflatable lawn decorations. Yet several of the venerable German woodworking houses, including a workshop run by the descendants of “Father of the Nutcracker'' Wilhelm Füchtner, still produce them in traditional styles.
So, the next time you stop to admire a nutcracker, you can thank the ingenuity of German miners who had the spare time, and tools, to create something beautiful a few centuries ago.