An enchanted journey becomes a holiday classic

Two of my Christmas nutcracker figures

When my brother and I were children, my parents always kept a metal nutcracker in the house. Not the doll-like figure that graces households at Christmas in multitudes, but a twin-handled implement specially textured to be able to snugly hold a nut in its shell and then squeeze the handles to apply enough pressure to the nut to crack it. In those days, nuts were generally available inside their shells, and a bowl of assorted nuts was a fixture in European households during the holidays. Each nutcracker usually came with a set of picks – a sharp, pointy end affixed to a thin handle – to use for digging the nuts out of their shell casings once you’d cracked the nut open.

Screenshot Amazon website: You can still buy the utilitarian version of a nutcracker with picks, should you find yourself with a bag of nuts that need shelling

If one was lucky enough to live near a farm with walnut trees, nothing could beat the flavour of a freshly-cracked nut freshly picked off the ground. It’s been so long since I had a fresh walnut that I can’t remember the taste, only the pleasure in eating one.

But nowadays everyone buys bulk bags of shelled nuts to put in muffins, cakes and bowls of granola or yogurt. Super handy, but without the gratification in cracking apart a rich-looking nut to reveal the treasure inside.

Nutcrackers as tools have been around for centuries,  in various shapes including squirrels and crocodiles.

Screenshot of archived article from the BBC showing a vintage crocodile-shaped nutcracker

Apparently King Henry VIII gave one or two of them to Anne Boleyn in the 16th century, and long before that a nutcracker dating back to the late 4th or early 3rd century B.C. was cast in bronze in southern Italy, in the shape of a pair of female hands and forearms with gold arm bracelets.

Screenshot of the oldest existing nutcracker from the Nutcracker Museum

Even before that, nutting ‘stones’, made of a larger stone with a small depression to cradle the nut, paired with a smaller stone, called a ‘hammer stone’, that functioned as the smashing implement, have been dated as far back as 8,000 years ago.

Wooden nutcrackers have existed for several centuries, but somewhere around the 17th they began to be carved in figural shapes, i.e. the doll-like creations we know so well today, and were painted and given as gifts. In German tradition, they symbolized good luck and made great Christmas presents.

But it was Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, better known by his initials, E.T.A. Hoffman, who wrote a story about a young girl who’s given a soldier nutcracker toy as a Christmas gift by her godfather, Drosselmeier. On Christmas Eve the toy, actually Drosselmeier’s nephew who was transformed with a large head, wide mouth, and cottony beard through a curse from the Queen of Mice, comes alive and leads Maria on adventures through a magical doll kingdom. Maria eventually breaks the curse, the nephew becomes human once more, and they marry (at apparently a very young age), upon which he takes her to live in the enchanted kingdom.

Hoffman’s odd little fairy-tale, written during the Romantic period in European literature, was published in 1816 in German, and later translated into English in New York. It seemed to capture the public imagination – writer Alexandre Dumas, pѐre, wrote his own version, and a composer was setting some of it to music by the mid 1850s. However, it was the dreamy ballet, with music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and first choreographed by the legendary Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, that brought the story of the girl and the nutcracker the fame it has now. The ballet was an adaptation of the original novella, using only parts of the tale and renaming Maria as Clara, and wasn’t overly successful at first. But the combination of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful music and gorgeous staging soon turned the ballet into a classic that’s now performed annually during the holiday season by countless ballet companies, and the role of Clara is the one all young ballerinas covet.

For a writer, that’s a grand measure of success: when your story so inspires people that it develops a life of its own across multiple generations. In a sense, all the decorative nutcrackers produced through the decades were early ‘action’ figures/fan memorabilia. I have several nutcrackers myself, including a vampire spin-off that’s one of my favourite Halloween decorations.

Hoffman’s writing was marvellously evocative, such as the scene where the Stahlbaum children are allowed their first sight of the newly-decorated Christmas tree:

“You will then be able to imagine the astonishment of the children, as they stood with sparkling eyes, unable to utter a word, for joy at the sight before them… A tall Fir tree stood in the middle of the room, covered with gold and silver apples, while sugar almonds, comfits, lemon drops, and every kind of confectionery, hung like buds and blossoms upon all its branches. But the greatest beauty about this wonderful tree, was the many little lights that sparkled amid its dark boughs, which like stars illuminated its treasures, or like friendly eyes seemed to invite the children to partake of its blossoms and fruit.”

Romanticism, Hoffman’s milieu, emphasized emotion, the richness of the medieval past, and the heroism of individuals, all of which permeate his story. The ballet has generated a fair bit of controversy in recent years with some of its ethnic stereotypes, and some companies are trying to eliminate those from their productions, but the music and magic are timeless. If you haven’t yet, I hope that you get to see a live performance, but some terrific televised versions are worth watching if you can catch one. I particularly like Nutcracker: The Motion Picture from 1986 — a sumptuous visual feast that’s closer to the original Hoffman tale. In the meantime, there are lots of versions of decorative nutcrackers around, from small to almost life-size, to allow you to enjoy a little of Clara’s enchantment for yourself during the holidays.

If you’re interested, you can read the original tale by E.T.A. Hoffman, translated into English at Wikisource.

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