Christmas is our favourite time of year, and we never shy away from that. Look around the store now, and you’ll see Christmas everywhere, with decorations and displays to suit all tastes; modern, rustic, contemporary, traditional, and everything in between. We have conveyed our love for gonks in many different ways, and as each year passes, we have many more available. But it’s not just gonks that dominate the store… Nestled amongst all our decorations, you’ll find nutcrackers in an array of sizes and colours, nutcrackers that have absolutely nothing to do with cracking nuts! Of all the Christmas traditions, these brightly-coloured ornaments are one of the more curious, and although the common guise of historic soldier will spring to mind – a favourite depiction that has been popular for around 300 years – nutcrackers were originally developed to do what they suggest, crack nuts!
Before any attempts to create a nut-cracking device were ever considered, rocks were used to break the shells of any nuts that were proving to be a challenge, but around the third or fourth century B.C., decorated and engraved tools were made with the same principle of modern day, functioning, plier-like nutcrackers that crack shells with the force of squeezing the handles together.
In the 13th century, lever nutcrackers developed and took on a more novel appearance, often as animals or animal heads. Made of iron, they would allow for nuts to be placed in the animal’s mouth and the tail lowered in order to crack them; in the next couple of centuries, brass became a popular choice, and functionality returned with the plier-style, but these were now smaller, and they started to be called nutcrackers.
Whilst iron, brass, porcelain and wood were used in different parts of the world, wood was the most popular material, and in the 15th and 16th century, carvers began to sculpt figures from local wood in the form of animals and humans.
The 17th century saw the invention of the screw nutcracker that pushed the nut against the side of a bowl to crack the shell, and whilst they became popular from a practical point of view, wooden figurines improved and became more prevalent. Legend has it that a rich farmer, too busy or lazy to crack his own nuts, offered a large reward for his entire village if someone devised a workable solution to the critical predicament, and sure enough, a puppet dressed as a soldier was created.
It was the 19th century, however, that gave us the soldier doll as the standard model. They may have been made for a century or so, but in 1816, German author, ETA Hoffmann, wrote the story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a dark Christmas tale of a little girl who receives a nutcracker as a present that comes alive at night to battle with an army of mice to defeat the seven-headed mouse king. It was adapted in 1844 by French writer, Alexandre Dumas, giving it a lighter tone, and a further adaptation was published in Germany in 1851; this one was written by Heinrich Hoffmann and titled, King Nutcracker or The Dream of Poor Reinhold, and it inspired a wood carver, Friedrich Wilhelm Fuchtner, to create the traditional figure that we’ve come to know and love in 1865. Fuchtner became known as the ‘father of the nutcracker’, and the business still creates the dolls today.
Whilst the popularity of the painted figures had increased courtesy of the literary sector, the use of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King for a Russian ballet in 1892, took them to a whole other level. The Nutcracker was eventually adapted from Dumas’s adaptation as it was deemed less scary and more appropriate, and although it took time to make an impact, Tchaikovsky’s score hit the right notes! Set on Christmas Eve, the ballet eventually became a Christmas tradition in itself, and it took the decorative nutcracker around the world.
What started as a practical solution to a tricky dilemma has now become as synonymous with Christmas as Rudolph, and if Christmas is involved, we want a part of it! If you want help cracking the shells of nuts over the Christmas period, our painted figurines are unlikely to help, but if you want to to add a little history to your Christmas décor, our nutcrackers are standing to attention, ready and waiting!