The nutcracker doll: a history

29 August 2014 | By Caitlyn Lehmann

Before the Nutcracker is transformed into a charming prince, he’s something of an ugly duckling. That grimace, those staring eyes. Those teeth! Could there be a uglier harbinger of Christmas than a nutcracker doll?

Well, yes. These days a visit inside a Christmas shop can reveal a veritable cave of saucer-eyed elves, dazed plastic angels and Santas that look like they’ve had one eggnog too many. Yet, within the modern pantheon of Christmas critterines, the traditional Nutcracker is unique. Resplendent in his uniform, he is neither Christian missive nor a meddler from our pagan past. So how did this awkward-looking, über-practical piece of German hardware become an icon of our Western yuletide celebrations?

The Nutcracker roams Melbourne ahead of our upcoming season.

Our story begins deep in the Ore Mountains, those shadowy, forested peaks that form a natural borderland between Germany and the Czech Republic. Here, for centuries, the local villagers mined the mountains’ rich mineral resources, prospering from gold, tin and silver. Here, too, the villagers honed their woodcraft skills, whittling and carving the forests’ timber to make toys and decorative items during the long, dark winters.

The craftsmen of Erzgebirge, in particular, forged a thriving local industry from woodcraft after mining declined in the 17th century. And it seems that they had a yen for a little political subversion. Caught in the crossfire of competing imperial masters, the carvers of the region took up their tools and took the mickey. They chiselled grim-mouthed wooden nutcrackers, caricatures of authority standing stiffly to attention. What sweeter mischief could there be than making kings and their soldiers crack nuts at one’s command?

But like all good folkloric traditions, the nutcracker also has a more romantic origin story. Long ago, so another tale goes, a miserly farmer promised a reward to anyone who could crack his walnuts. From the village of Seiffen came a carver with a marvellous wooden puppet, its jaws colourfully painted and powerful enough to crack nuts. Job done! The farmer cheerfully rewarded the entire village.

Whatever its exact ancestry, by 1800 the standing wooden nutcracker had become a familiar sight around Erzgebrige and the nearby district of Sonneberg. There were nutcrackers in the garb of miners and policemen, as well as kings and soldiers – and when Napoleon occupied the region in the 1810s, the carvers whittled Napoleon nutcrackers to get their own back.

Unexpectedly, the traditional ugliness of the nutcracker emerged now as its greatest virtue; they were given as fierce good luck keepsakes, supposedly baring their teeth to ward off evil spirits. A nutcracker for luck? Perhaps this explains the enigmatic gift bestowed by Drosselmeyer on the Stahlbaums at their Christmas party. “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”, published in 1816, proved one of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s most popular tales. Like many of his works, it blurs the boundaries between childhood, dreams and reality – and it fixed the nutcracker as an icon of yuletide festivities.

Russians, in particular, had a deep affinity for Hoffmann’s stories. His influence on Russian literature was profound, and the adaption of his work for ballet hardly surprising. However, when the French choreographer Marius Petipa proposed the ballet to Tchaikovsky, it was actually an 1845 retelling of the story by French author Alexandre Dumas pere from which he took inspiration. The rest, we might say, is history, so far as the success of the ballet and Tchaikovsky’s music is concerned. But a popular ballet is one thing, meeting the market for nutcrackers quite another.

The average handcrafted nutcracker comprises upwards of 60 pieces, and involves up to 130 separate steps for completion. Nutcrackers, it’s fair to say, are a decidedly niche industry. The hub of production remains to this day in Erzgebirge, where the oldest of the workshops, run by the Füchtner family, proudly traces its orgins back to Gotthelf Friedrich Füchtner (the so-called “Father of the Nutcracker”), who was selling his wares at the Dresdener Striezel Market in 1786. Also laying claim to an illustrious tradition of nutcracker manufacture is the Steinbach family, who today cater to the insatiable American market for nutcrackers modelled on popular characters and celebrities, and limited edition nutcrackers for collectors.

Nutcrackers made by the Füchtner family

America’s seasonal nutcracker fever is popularly attributed to its GIs, who returned after World War II with nutcrackers bought from Germany’s famous Christmas Markets. Just a few years later, George Balanchine staged his production of The Nutcracker for New York City Ballet, and the ballet has been a holiday favourite ever since. Germany and the US even boast their own nutcracker museums—the Nussknackermuseum in Neuhausen and the Leavensworth Nutcracker Museum in Washington—and needless to add, there’s a red-hot market for vintage pieces.

Adored, ridiculed, bashed about by little boys called Fritz and generally misunderstood, the nutcracker is a true Christmas symbol for the foibles of human nature. The sturdiest of sentinels, inscrutable and abashed, he is the jaw-way to pleasures just a nutshell from us all.

See The Nutcracker go from doll to prince when this extravagantly beautiful ballet opens in Melbourne and Sydney. Tickets selling fast!

Follow the Nutcracker’s journey on Instagram. #nutcrackerhunt