It’s Christmastime and nutcracker decorations are everywhere.
You can blame Tchaikovsky, or Balanchine or even E.T.A. Hoffman for making the soldier-shaped wooden toy with an oversized head and a hinged mouth as much a part of holiday decorating as stars and sleighs.
I’m not a collector, but my Christmas decoration box is embarrassingly full of nutcrackers — enough that we tend to group them together into some sort of terrifying army of big mouthed, nattily dressed soldiers, some armed with swords.
It’s my daughter’s fault, of course. Her years of performing in annual productions of the Nutcracker ballet led friends, family and fellow dancers to shower us with nutcrackers every year.
I would like to point out that none of these nutcrackers can actually crack nuts, even though nuts also are a part of the holiday season. If you’re looking for utility, go with one of those hinged metal affairs, a take on a pliers.
Nutcrackers have been around forever, because nuts are good and nutritious, if a little challenging to get into.
The earliest nutcrackers were two stones, one with a hollowed out spot to hold a nut, and the other for smashing it. One of the oldest known metal nutcrackers dates to 200-300 B.C. and is housed in a museum in Italy. That’s according to the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum in central Washington state, which claims to have one of the largest nutcracker collections. Among its 6,000-plus nutcrackers is a bronze Roman one that dates from somewhere between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D.
The Leavenworth collection (www.nutcrackermuseum.com) includes wooden soldier-styled nutcrackers ranging in size from a few inches to one named Karl that’s six-feet tall and carved out of a single log of linden wood. Then there are brass and cast iron nutcrackers, many shaped like animals. There are screw-style nutcrackers, hinge-styled, and wooden soldiers that were made so long ago they were actually designed for cracking nuts.
Nuts are a fall food, and they store well. So families would have spent winter evenings cracking nuts in front of the fire. Maybe that’s why nutcrackers became Christmas presents, and Christmas decorations.
But I think it’s Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky — and his adaptation of a family-friendly adaptation of the Hoffman’s scary original, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” — who is ultimately responsible for the popularity of decorative soldier nutcrackers at Christmas time.
Tchaikovsky’s famous score is also ubiquitous this time of year, whether the orchestrated version or some alternative take — electropop, balalaika, a cappella or shopping mall Muzak.
The score was commissioned by Marius Petipa for his Russian Imperial Ballet, which performed the first Nutcracker ballet in in 1892 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Russian dancer George Balanchine himself danced the role of nutcracker prince in 1919 when he was 15. After Balanchine co-founded the New York City Ballet, he choreographed his own version of the Nutcracker ballet, first performed in New York in 1954 and perhaps the most famous version.
New York City Ballet performs it every year, almost 50 times between the day after Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. Ballet companies and ballet schools all over the place put on their own versions each winter, and for many families, catching the Nutcracker ballet has become a holiday tradition.
And that means ever more opportunities to collect nutcrackers. If you’ve been fortunate enough to see the New York City Ballet version at Lincoln Center, you’ll see an audience full of small children dressed in their holiday finest, holding their own nutcracker soldiers. Parents whose children dance in Nutcracker productions, anywhere and everywhere, buy or are given toy nutcrackers for their young dancers. Parents who take their kids to see the ballet do the same.
So I know I’m not the only one with an entire army. This year the army will be on display on a side table or a window sill. And in the nut bowl, we’ll keep a utilitarian metal nutcracker.