The nutcracker doll used to be a staple for Christmas festivities. It donned the toy soldier’s appearance, and it would also act as a tool to crack open walnut shells. People would decorate their trees or shelves with the novelty item, but it has not had the same impact in recent years. The Grinch, ugly sweaters, and Secret Santa remain popular icons that define the holiday. Unfortunately, the nutcracker is limited to the ballet performance of the same name. In an effort to revitalize the tradition, let us look back on the history of its design.
While sources disagree on the place of origin, the Erzgebrige region in Germany is credited with the earliest design that included both aesthetic and practical applications. Erzgebrige was a mining community on the mountain ranges. When the silver and tin production dwindled, the villagers decided to focus on woodcrafts in hopes of creating a new industry within the town. The appearance of the nutcracker is based on soldiers, but other designs included authoritative figures. These artistic choices reflect the social and political disdain during the century. The cartoonish grin and stiff design mocked the notorious leaders, such as Napoleon Bonaparte. They were often given as gifts to neighboring towns and people. However, they were not specifically for Christmas. German tradition values the doll as a good luck symbol. A myth spawned that the design was created when a wealthy farmer needed a more efficient way to open walnut shells. He enlisted the help of artisans until a puppet maker introduced an axle-lever design. Nuts were the ideal snack for many Germans, and the harvest coincided with the end of the year. The nutcracker’s purpose made it an important decoration and tool during the Christmas holiday. The toy quickly became a German tradition.
German consumers found no reason to own more than one nutcracker. Thus, toymakers would sell their product to Russians, Poles, and Norwegians during economic hardships. Sales were stable, but could not satisfy the demand. Wilhelm Fuchtner sought to create a lathe to mass-produce the nutcrackers. Thanks to the ingenious design of the wood shaping machine, the nutcrackers could be produced commercially. Interest exponentially increased after the release of The Nutcracker Suite in 1892 by Peter Tchaikovsky. The performance was adapted from E.T.A Hoffman’s Christmas story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Tchaikovsky aimed to broaden the appeal of the nutcracker story by toning down the complexity of the story in favor of bright characters. The ballet was successful in Russia, but it did not earn critical acclaim until it was featured in London in 1934. World War II helped introduce America to the nutcracker design where it became a western icon for much of the 20th century. At this point, the design for the dolls had been standardized with the soldier outfit. All previous political or social commentaries were removed in favor of appealing to the global market.
During the conclusion of World War II, the Americans stationed in West Germany took an interest in the wood carvings. They sent numerous dolls home as Christmas gifts for their families. The booming demand is not completely understood. Some analyzed that the doll’s Prussian attire reminded the Americans of their fallen enemies. Others reasoned that the craftmanship and colors were selling points. Either way, the business saved some Germans during political and economic turmoil. Both East and West Germany produced their own unique versions of the dolls. East Germany focused on cheaper, but simplistic design while the West Germans provided creative liberties to their designs. Today, the United States remains an avid collector of toy soldiers. Demand has slowed since World War II, but interest sparks whenever the Nutcracker Ballet is in production. The design remains largely intact, but the mouth functionality is removed from many modern versions. In addition, there are new designs that resemble pop-culture and historical figures.
While its significance has changed over many centuries, it should remain an integral part of the Christmas holiday. It started as a whimsical idea for a toy business in a desperate town. Now, it has transformed into a novelty and distinctive caricature in the most anticipated holiday of the year. It symbolized good fortune, but it was built upon the hardships of the German people. It truly had a unique mark on Christmas traditions. If you are interested in learning more about the history, or the numerous designs, the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum houses over 4,000 wood carvings in Washington State.