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Nutcrackers are often seen around Christmas time, showing up in stores and houses all around the world. But have you ever thought why? Why a wooden, soldier shaped, kitchen utensil has become a decoration to display at Christmas?
To understand the long history of these Christmas Nutcrackers, we have to look back to Germany in the 17th Century. In the beautiful Germany countryside, on the edge of the German-Czech Republic border lies the Ore Mountains; a naturally rich landscape of minerals and dense forest.
Local villagers living in these remote mountains spent their entire lives honing their skills in mining and manufacturing. However, when the mining declined in the late 17th century, they made a thriving industry in woodcarving, previously only an occupation and pastime during the harsh winter months.
It was during this changing time that the soldier style Nutcrackers started to appear. The residents of the Ore Mountains were in an interesting political position, while being located on a natural and sometimes impassable border, they were part of the German empire. It was only understandable that the neighbouring empires would want control over such a large and mineral rich area. This meant that the locals would often get caught in crossfire.
Previously Nutcrackers were simple tools, made of either metal or wood to help crack or crush the shell around the nut for easier consumption. But these skilled Ore Mountain carvers decided to “take the mickey” out of the struggling neighbouring soldiers, unaccustomed to their harsh surroundings. The nutcrackers displayed bared teeth and wild eyes, standing still to attention to their similarly looking haggard kings. And what better way to secretly humiliate the enemy than making the kings and their soldiers crack nuts, on command.
In all old traditions, there is always the folklore of where “the first” had come from, Nutcrackers are no different. While we can say that almost all German wooden carvings (especially Christmas decorations), originated in the Ore Mountains, this story states that the carver specifically came from the mountain village of Seiffen.
The story says that there was a farmer who had a lot of nuts but could not work out the best way to crack them all. He offered a reward to anyone who had the best way of cracking these nuts. A soldier tried to shoot the nuts, while a carpenter tried to saw them apart, but neither worked.
Meanwhile a toymaker from Seiffen brought his beautifully painted puppet. His puppet had bared teeth and a very strong jaw. The farmer was dubious that a toy could crack nuts, but was amazed as the puppet easily and cleanly opened all of his nuts. He was so happy and thankful that he rewarded the entire town and gave the toymaker his own workshop. The toymaker became famous and people came from all around to purchase his ‘Nutcracker’ puppets.
German-made decorations, especially Nutcrackers are beautiful works of art. The Ore Mountain carvers are world renowned and masters of their craft, so it is not unusual that people bought these beautiful utensils to give to others as gifts.
Over time the nutcrackers fierce expressions turned from mocking or enduring hardships, to a soldier’s determination. The nutcrackers soon became known as protections, their vivid eyes and bared teeth were said to be to ward off from evil spirits. People started to put the Nutcrackers around the home, more so during the long and cold winter nights (Christmas time for Germany). It was at this time that Nutcrackers became more ornamental, used less for actually cracking nuts and were given more regularly as decorative gifts.
However, it was the story of the Nutcracker and Ballet that really solidified the Christmas connection.
The Nutcracker ballet stems from the original and more grizzly German tale of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”, first published in 1816 by E.T.A Hoffmann, a story of childlike fantasy, dreams and confusion of reality. The story centres itself around the Yuletide festivities (Christmas time), where a family has been given a Nutcracker as a gift from the children’s godfather.
The story tells the tale of one of the children who awakens during the night to find the nutcracker and other toys have come to life, fending off a hoard of rodents and their gigantic, seven headed king. The child then saves her beloved Nutcracker from death/kidnapping by throwing her shoe at the king and accidently falling into the glass toy cabinet. She awakens in the morning hurt and feverish, and upon telling her family the story, they do not believe her.
While she is healing, her Godfather hands her the Nutcracker and tells her the story of the mouse queen, her children’s untimely death and a poor young man who has a curse turned him into an ugly, wild eyed Nutcracker.
At night her dreams are full of the whispered words of the mouse king, blackmail and then saviour and joy from the Nutcracker, who with her help, cuts the seven heads off the mouse king. Then takes her to a wondrous land and the palace of the Nutcracker.
After she has healed she stares at the wooden Nutcracker and tells him that if he were real, she would love him, no matter how ugly. The Nutcracker then transforms into a beautiful young man and says she has broken the curse on him.
As of that era, the children’s tale is full of death, blackmail and betrayal. The Nutcracker ballet was adapted by Alexandre Dumas Pere to suit a stage performance and focused more on the romantic love between the Nutcracker and the girl. The play premiered a week before Christmas in 1892, however did not become the famous performance it currently is, until almost 100 years later.
Nowadays the Ballet is showcased every year in many countries around the world, and is an annual tradition for many to see during Christmas time.
Over the last few centuries, the designs of Nutcrackers have changed to become more ornamental than practical. We do not recommend you try to crack nuts with them, as not all of them are made to withstand the pressure. You can still use the lever on the Nutcracker’s back to lever their mouth open and shut.
Nutcrackers have a long and wonderful history and it is no surprise people love to have their own beautifully painted Nutcrackers. At The German Village Shop we have an extensive range of Christmas Nutcrackers for sale, everything from hanging tree decoration Nutcrackers to large elaborately painted designs.
You can be sure that all of our Nutcrackers are exclusively German made, hand painted and will look stunning among any Christmas display.