A brief history of nutcrackers.

What to eat, drink, buy, and think during that special time of year
Dec. 16 2010 10:54 AM

In a Nutshell

A brief history of nutcrackers.

(Continued from Page 1)
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

By the 1980s, there were increasingly desperate attempts to cater to American tastes. Some caught on—my mom's collection, full of mailman nutcrackers and Benjamin Franklin nutcrackers and even a Harley Davidson-riding nutcracker, is a testament to that—while others flopped. One especially controversial 1991 nutcracker, marketed once again to American GIs in Germany, was garbed in Desert Storm combat gear, toted a rifle and ammo, and was packaged in what looked like a munitions container. Even soldiers seemed largely uninterested in such a jarringly aggressive, and contemporary, bit of military iconography on a quaint Christmas decoration.

By that point, the provenance of nutcrackers didn't really matter—if it ever did—for voracious American consumers, who just wanted something that looked vaguely like the guy from the ballet. Nutcrackers had begun popping up at bargain basement prices in department stores, with "Made in China" stickers stuck to the bottom of ripped-off German designs. Some of my mother's collection was made by the venerable old nutcracker houses (Steinbach being the most storied) and purchased at a German specialty store in Cleveland; others were made in Taiwan and bought at Target. You can tell the difference if you lift them, feel their heft, and inspect the detail. Sitting on the shelf, though, it's the bright colors and whimsy you notice, which both kinds have in spades.

What was once a restrained European folk-art pursuit has ballooned into an over-the-top tradition, thanks largely to we Americans, who spend north of $8 billion each year on Christmas decorations annually. We seem to have a national instinct to collect, particularly when it comes to pop-culture-related merch.

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That Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum in Washington State, which has more than 4,000 of the figurines, began as Wagner's personal, Nutcracker-inspired collection. And since what many of us now celebrate at Christmas is, well, celebrating, it doesn't hurt that Nutcrackers are an easily recognizable symbol of a Christmas story that has nothing to do with Baby Jesus; the ballet's Christmas themes have to do with the festivities, not the theology, of the holiday.

For my mother's part, she tells me that nutcrackers felt more substantial than other Christmas decorations—ornaments break, crèche sets inevitably wind up with a wise man gone missing, but nutcrackers stand there, solidly, year after year. There's no reason, of course, that she needs well over a hundred of them. We've all moved out, leaving our nutcrackers behind—and when she lines them all up, a little army of military men, it's hard not to think she's assembling a force against the emptiness of the house, as, I suppose, many collectors are. She's not tapping into any German roots, not attempting to build value for resale, not harboring any especial historical interest in them. None of the German legends mean anything to her, really—in her mythology, the little bearded nutcrackers represent only Christmases with each of her children. It might not be strictly in keeping with German tradition, but it's precisely the sort of American sentimentalism that's kept the German tradition in business all these years.

  View a slide show on the history of nutcrackers.

Correction, Dec. 16, 2010: The article originally said that East German manufacturers imported nutcrackers to the West, when, of course, they exported them. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, Dec. 21, 2010: The article originally and incorrectly said Erzgebirge is part of the Black Forest region. It also misspelled Erzgebirge. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)