“The nutcracker sits under the holiday tree, a guardian of childhood stories. Feed him walnuts and he will crack open a tale….”
— Vera Nazarian
Primitive nutcrackers were nothing like the nutcrackers that we know of today. To understand the significance of the nutcracker, we need to go back in time to a point when malevolent spirits held a place in everyday life. In these early times, typically referred to medieval times, nutcrackers were used to ward off spirits, bring luck and crack nuts.
The Nutcracker as an Everyday Tool
Typically, nutcrackers were of simpler but creative design. During medieval times, the nutcracker was an everyday tool. And nuts were a staple in everyday life. Medieval nutcrackers were whittled from wood and were skillfully designed by the whittler.
Some nutcrackers appeared with human or elfish heads, animals and other objects. But typically, the nutcracker had two handles which clasped together, and at the end was a cracking mechanism. The nutcracker was more geared toward function but also had ornate design. Nutcrackers weren’t considered decoration in these times, but simply a tool. Once, harder metals were introduced, nutcrackers were also ornately fashioned from metal, but were not as affordable to the lower classes.
The Nutcracker Doll
In the late 17th century the nutcracker was transformed into a doll, by German craftsman. Although, it was doll sized and was given as a gift and used as a toy, the nutcracker still functioned as a nutcracker. It was during this time that the nutcracker became associated with Christmas. It was also, in this time that the dolls began to be used as household decorations and the nutcracker took on a whimsical toy solider appearance with bright colors and embellishments.
In 1892, a ballet was created based off a Prussian novel about a nutcracker prince and a mouse king which was titled “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” In the ballet, The Nutcracker, the nutcracker was dressed as a Prussian prince adorned with a fancy cap and elaborate suit. Prior to the novel and ballet, nutcrackers weren’t typically associated to royalty.
The ballet debuted in December, because part of the ballet is focused on Christmas morning. In both the novel and ballet, the Nutcracker Prince, in toy form, is given to the children to play with as a gift to them all. In the novel and ballet, the Nutcracker Prince, came to life at night, as a life-sized prince who battled the Mouse King. It is possible that once the ballet became more accepted, that the concept of life size nutcrackers, became a part of the holiday season.
In the 19th century, the nutcracker solider became a popular Christmas decoration and gift, and its popularity spread across Europe. As the demand for the nutcracker solider grew, the doll began being mass produced. And this solidified the nutcracker solider as the symbol we know it as today.
It wasn’t until the 40s and 50s in the US, that The Nutcracker ballet made its debut on the west and east coasts. The debut in 1944 was on Christmas Eve in San Francisco, and then 10 years later in New York City, in 1954 also on Christmas Eve. These ballets solidified the nutcrackers’ association to Christmas and the holidays in the US. As well as furthering the concept of larger nutcrackers. The costumes evolved from a Russian influence to an English influence as the ballet was adapted from country to country. And the Nutcracker Prince became a giant nutcracker on stage with alterations made to his costume of a nutcracker head, and real sword.
The Life-Sized Nutcrackers of Today
The nutcracker has evolved from a household tool essential to daily life into a fiberglass outdoor nutcracker statue adorning the entry ways of the White House in Washington D.C. It is amazing that a simply crafted tool designed centuries ago, withstood the test of time, and is now recognized all over the world as “The Nutcracker.”
Perhaps a prince was trapped inside of a nutcracker, and it is of that magic which nutcrackers came to be part of households across the world during the Christmas season. Or perhaps the magic of Christmas itself cast a spell on the simple nutcracker giving him a new life filled with whimsy for all eternity.