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Mrs. C says: Oh for the joy of nutcrackers. We’re not talking those silver pincer-type utensils with which you crack your Christmas walnuts. No, dear friends – this is a world of shiny wooden soldiers, music by Tchaikovsky and the most-performed Christmas ballet in history.

Ed Elf: You own one taller than me, don’t you Mrs. C? I find it altogether intimidating.

Mrs. C: There’s nothing to be afraid of, Ed. In all these years, has even one member of my nutcracker collection caused you any harm?

Ed Elf: No – but they’re watching me. It’s only a matter of time.

Mrs. C: Poor Ed’s clearly got his nutcracker issues, if you pardon the expression. But I adore them and hope you might too.

History

A nutcracker in its most basic form is a mechanical or functional device for cracking nuts. The earliest recorded mention of the word nutcracker in the English language was 1481. It wasn’t long before carved wooden nutcracker figures were introduced, depicting soldiers, knights and even kings. Their stern expressions resulted from the fact the carvings were initially only of these imposing and authoritative figures. To own a nutcracker like this was often seen as a sign of good fortune and protection. A lever at the back of the head would open the figure’s mouth and be strong enough to crack a nut. A cottage industry for carving nutcrackers developed in rural Germany and the tradition was exported to the United States with European immigrants. The nutcrackers we recognise today began to take shape around 1870. Nutcrackers became collectors’ items, especially those made by Steinbach, Klaus Mertens and Junghanel. Nowadays most modern versions serve a predominantly decorative purpose.

Story, Music, Dance

“The Nutcracker” ballet is performed worldwide every Christmas, most notably in the United States. The libretto is adapted from German author E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”. It is Christmas Eve when children Clara and Fritz are visited by Drosselmeyer, a local councilman and magician. One of the toys he takes them is a wooden nutcracker that comes to life, fights the Mouse King, is crucially helped by Clara and turns into a handsome prince. Clara is hailed as a heroine in the Land of Sweets, which is ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The two-act ballet premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892 to the music of Tchaikovsky. The ballet was not an instant success but the Russian composer’s twenty-minute suite extracted from the show was warmly welcomed. It was in the second half of the twentieth century that the complete work began to find its cherished place in popular culture. Major US ballet companies derive something like 40 percent of their annual revenue from performances of “The Nutcracker”.

Speciality Shops

Erzgebirge-Palace: Visit this wonderful palace of delights and be prepared to be lost in a whole new world for a while. The nutcrackers are 100 percent handmade in Germany and shipped all over the globe. Their dedicated online shop is at erzgebirgepalace.com. The selection is nutcracker_221323918vast and the price range huge (from around £15 for the smallest figures to £1500 for the life-size models). Here are just some of the nutcracker characters and themes you can purchase: Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, Snowman, Father Time, Black Forester, Uncle Sam, Artist, Austrian soldier, Nutcracker groupBagpiper, Aviator, Bavarian beer-drinker, Beefeater, Beekeeper, Carol singer, Hussar, Chef, Mouse King, Chimney sweep, Cowboy, Dentist, Drummer, Fireman, Policeman, Angler, Golfer, Baseball player, St. Patrick, Jester, Skier and a variety of kings. The website makes easy work of finding the nutcracker you want as it lists them in categories like ‘Professions’, ‘Kings’, ‘Soldiers’ as well as in lists for height and price.

Erzgebirge-Palace also sells wonderful candle arches, angels, German candle pyramids and the charming wooden figures known as smokers, in which you can place a smouldering incense block and see scented smoke flow from the figure’s mouth. They produce about 5000 handcrafted items in all using only the finest manufacturers like Steinbach, Ulbricht and Seiffener Volkskunst.

The Nutcracker Christmas Shop: This family run business, nutcrackers_156928538owned by Robert Newman, has shops in Stratford-on-Avon in the English Midlands as well as Edinburgh, Callander and Crieff in Scotland. On their web site, they proudly announced: “The opening of the Nutcracker Christmas Village at Muthill Road in Crieff will be the UK’s largest, permanent, dedicated Christmas shop.” Well, it was opened in 2014 – complete with a Christmas tree and eleven ‘houses’ full of festive products in a village square. Father Christmas has his own special room, too. Visit the village, their website at nutcrackerchristmasshop.co.uk or one of their stores, all of which are open 10am-6pm seven days a week. And they sell much more than nutcrackers, of course. By the way, we are pleased to report Robert has his very own nutcracker collection.

Did you know…for the first time in October 2008 the United States Postal Service issued four stamps depicting nutcrackers? The stamps featured custom-made nutcrackers by Virginia artist Glenn Crider. You can see his work at gingercottages.com and find out where to purchase your very own Glenn Crider creations.