Christmas Traditions > Nutcrackers

A nutcracker is a device for cracking nuts. It works on the principle of moments derived from Archimedes’ discovery of the lever.

Nutcrackers as wood carvings of a soldier, knight, king, or other profession have been known since at least the 15th century. These nutcrackers are carvings of a person with a big mouth that is opened by pressing a lever in the back of the figurine. Originally one could insert a nut in the big-toothed mouth, press down and thereby crack the nut. Modern nutcrackers in this style are mostly for decoration.

The carving of nutcrackers as well as religious figures and cribs developed as a cottage industry in forested rural areas of Germany. The most famous nutcracker carvings come from Sonneberg, Thuringia, also a center of doll making, and from the Ore Mountains. Wood carving was usually the only income for the people living there. Today their income is supplemented by the travel industry bringing visitors to the remote areas.

Nutcrackers have become popular in the United States as well and a recreated “Bavarian village” of Leavenworth, Washington even features a Nutcracker Museum. Many other materials were used for the decorated nutcrackers, such as porcelain, silver, and brass, and can be seen at the Museum [].

Carvings by famous names like Jungbanel, Mertens, Karl, Kolbe, Petersen, Ulbricht and especially the Steinbach nutcrackers have become collectors’ items.

According to German folklore, nutcrackers were given as keepsakes to bring good luck to your family and protect your home. The legend says that a nutcracker represents power and strength and serves like a trusty watch dog guarding your family from evil spirits and danger. A fierce protector, the nutcracker bares its teeth to the evil spirits and serves as the traditional messenger of good luck and goodwill.

“Don’t be afraid, my beard is long, my head is large, my look is grim but that matters not. I won’t bite you. In spite of my big mouth and grim appearance, I look with my heart for your happiness.”

Nutcrackers embody the ‘Cycle of Life’ > As the seed of a nut falls to the ground, it grows into a strong tree, living over hundreds of years nourishing the woodcutters and woodcrafters. The legends tell of a feast celebrated just before harvesting the logs of the Elder trees, where nuts and fruits were eaten as if to pass on the magic and mystery of this eternal cycle and so on to the collectors of these exquisite wooden nutcrackers.

Nutcrackers reflect ancestral dining customs where amusing or unusual nutcrackers were part of the social setting adding a whimsical conversation piece as guests lingered over the desert course which included sweetmeats such as pecans and hazelnuts.

Writers, composers and artists sang and danced the praises of the legend of the Nutcracker beginning with the novel “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” written sometime between 1776 and 1822, by E.T. Amadeus Hoffman. This novel became the basis for Tchaikovsky’s magnificent “Nutcracker Suite”, which debuted as a ballet in St. Petersburg in 1892 and lives on as a holiday tradition throughout the world.

The Nutcracker Ballet > The story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was written by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation of the story was set to music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and has become the most popular ballet performed around Christmas time. It is appealing to children and adults alike and has been a standard yearly feature of theaters in many cities. Because the ballet centers around a young girl’s Christmas gift of a life-size nutcracker, it has become a standard performance during the Christmas holiday season.