For most people, Christmas nutcrackers—the kind that look like little men—call to mind sugarplum fairies and first trips to the ballet. I think of my mother. She's not otherwise given over to kitsch or obsessive collecting, but every year around Thanksgiving she pulls from the recesses of closets and the depths of the basement a collection of more than 150 nutcrackers. Then, with a steady soundtrack of Christmas music filling the house, she arranges them carefully by theme: Soldierly nutcrackers arrayed in dignified formation; the cheesemonger and fisherman nestled in the kitchen; several Santas all competing for the attentions of a single Mrs. Claus on a hutch in the family room; the characters from the ballet—Clara, the Mouse King, et al—in a place of honor in the dining room near my grandmother's silver.
Technically, none of this collection actually belongs to my mother: They've all been gifts she's given to her six children and her husband. There's been one for each of us every year since the day in the mid-1980s when, dress-shopping and fresh off a performance of The Nutcracker ballet, she spotted a nutcracker displayed in a department store downtown and impulsively bought it for my older brother. He found the doll too strange—that dour, almost angry, face—to keep in his room, so the nutcracker was moved downstairs and an annual tradition began. Each of the nutcrackers has, scribbled on its underside, the name of the child to whom it belongs. It's an odd little way to trace our family history, to meander among the bright dolls and try to piece together a timeline. But it's also possible to trace a larger history through these nutcrackers, which ended up in my mother's dining room thanks to German peasants, Soviet subsidies, American soldiers, and a French ballet corps.
Tools to crack nuts have been around for a long time. The earliest written reference to the tool seems to have come in the 14th century, and they pop up as very minor footnotes throughout European history, according to Robert Mills, author of Nutcrackers: The tool is alluded to in The Canterbury Tales. King Henry VIII gave a pair of nutcrackers to Anne Boleyn (ponder the possible symbolisms of that one for a bit). Even Leonardo DaVinci expended some brainpower on the concept of how best to crack nuts—one solution he came up with was a large, horse-powered press.
As Judith A. Rittenhouse explains in her comprehensive history of nutcrackers, for many years, no one regional version of the device became dominant over the others, though most involved the same basic machinery (lots of levers and screw presses). Design and material varied wildly—brass crocodiles in India; cast-iron squirrels in England; even porcelain elsewhere in northern Europe. Wood was the most common material, and it's what German woodworkers in the Erzgebirge region * turned to in the late 17th century when they began carving the earliest versions of the distinctive soldier-dolls we know today.
At first, these nutcrackers, often made in workshops alongside carved toys and puzzles, weren't specifically Christmas-themed—though they were commonly given as gifts—and it's impossible to pin down precisely when they took on that seasonal significance. (Nuts and thus nutcrackers are a part of many holiday celebrations—Halloween in regions of Britain and Scotland was traditionally known as Nutcrack Night.)
The dolls symbolize good luck in German tradition—one popular origin myth, related by Rittenhouse, holds that a wealthy but lonely farmer who found the process of cracking nuts to be detrimental to his productivity (efficiency even pervades German folklore!) offered a reward to whoever could come up with the best solution. Each villager drew on his own professional expertise—a carpenter advocating sawing them open, a soldier shooting the suckers. But it was the puppetmaker—a profession that seems to loom large in European tall tales —who won the day, building a strong-jawed, lever-mouthed doll.
German homes didn't typically have more than one of the dolls, and so, during rough economic times in the early 19th century, the region's toymakers took to the roads, selling their stuff elsewhere—Russia, Poland, Norway. Demand increased, and by the 1870s, nutcrackers (among other wooden toys) had begun to be produced commercially in factories.
Nutcrackers got what would turn out to be their biggest boost when Peter Tchaikovsky adapted an 1816 E.T.A Hoffman Christmas story called The Nutcracker and the Mouse King for the—eventually—famous and wildly successful ballet, first performed in 1892. The ballet wasn't immediately a hit (though parts of its score were), so for years after its debut the German version of the nutcracker featured therein remained largely a regional phenomonen. In fact, the most popular nutcrackers at the time of the First World War were probably wood-carved human and animal heads made in the Groden Valley of Northern Italy. The Nutcracker wasn't widely performed until the mid-20th century, when it became a distinctly American hit.
The war also played an important role in introducing Americans to the German way of cracking nuts, according to Arlene Wagner, who curates the Leavenworth Nutcracker museum. American G.I.s stationed in West Germany after the war began purchasing the figurines to send home as Christmas gifts, despite the fact that many of the dolls were modeled after Prussian soldiers and the American defeat of the Nazis was still recent history. Though there's something ancient and primal about the urge to display your felled enemy in some form or another, the popularity of these figurines probably had more to do with their charming woodwork, their bright colors, and the strength of the dollar than old-fashioned triumphalism.
Gift-hunting GIs helped keep the nutcracker-makers in business. When Germany splintered into East and West, the Erzgebirge region was behind the wall. Few in the East could afford to buy nutcrackers themselves, so East German woodworkers exported their goods to West Germany and its ready market of American soldiers. * For the remainder of the Cold War era, there was a mini nutcracker war that mirrored the larger ideological struggle: Eastern manufacturers had government subsidies—along with government price and wage setting—that allowed them to expand their operations and sell their nutcrackers at about half the cost of those made in West Germany. But the mass-produced Eastern nutcrackers soon became less carefully manufactured, and the same designs—which had to be approved by the government—were used over and over. Meanwhile, in the West, creative new designs flourished, says Wagner.
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.
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. 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.)