A brief history of the nutcracker doll
Invented over 150 years ago, the nutcracker is a typical Christmas decoration in Germany. Here's how it became the most famous figurine among many other traditional wooden decorations.
A global phenomenon
Germany is a leading manufacturer of traditional nutcrackers. Today, the decorative Christmas figures are collected by people all over the world. While they have been around for ages, the wooden dolls only became popular in the US in the 1950s. The nutcracker acquired its iconic status through a globalized transmission of popular culture.
A famous ballet
The German author E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote the story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" in 1816. French writer Alexandre Dumas came up with his own adaptation of the story in 1844, which was then turned into a ballet by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky in 1892. Now a Christmas classic, the work contributed to the nutcracker's fame worldwide.
Brothers Grimm symbolism
Jacob Grimm, the oldest of the famous Brothers Grimm, also wrote about nutcrackers in his treatise on Germanic mythology, "Deutsche Mythologie," from 1835. He described how wooden nutcrackers were carved as protective figures of strength and power. The grim-mouthed nutcrackers symbolized good luck. By baring their teeth, they were to protect homes by warding off evil spirits.
Another early German version
Heinrich Hoffmann, best known as the creator of the children's book "Der Struwwelpeter" (Shaggy Peter), also wrote his own version of E.T.A Hoffmann's story. Published in Germany in 1851, his illustrated tale was titled "King Nutcracker or The Dream of Poor Reinhold," and told the story of a poor child who dreams of the "Fairy Town of Toys" and meets the "Nutcracker King with royal jaws."
The father of a global icon
Inspired by Heinrich Hoffman's version of the story, an Ore Mountain carver named Friedrich Wilhelm Füchtner created the iconic traditional nutcracker model by 1870 that later went into serial production — which is why he became known as the "father of the nutcracker." The family business in Seiffen is now being run by the eighth generation of Füchtners.
From a mining region
There are many traditional nutcracker producers in the Ore Mountain region, which makes up the natural borderland between Germany and the Czech Republic. Initially attracting miners, the forested area with long, dark winters also inspired villagers to develop other carved wooden decorations: Christmas pyramids, candle holders called Schwibbogen, and smoking figures known as Räuchermännchen.
Generations of soldiers
Mass production of the nutcracker doll in the region started in the late 19th century, but wooden figures used to crack nuts were already created in Europe for centuries. The right picture features a model dating back to ca. 1650, along with one of the first typical Ore Mountain region figurines from 1870. Left and center are more recent models, depicting a Swiss knight and an American soldier.
Creative wood carvers
By the 1700s, Austrian, Italian and Swiss carvers were making animal and human-shaped nutcrackers. No one knows who came up with the idea. According to legend, a rich farmer who was too lazy to crack his own nuts promised to reward his entire village if anyone came up with a solution. A carver created a colorful puppet that could crack nuts with its jaws. The Napoleon figure (center) is from 1822.
Traditional nutcrackers typically took on the attributes of figures of authority, such as kings, soldiers, forest guards or policemen. During the Christmas season, the poor could celebrate their hard year of work by having the nutcrackers break nuts at their command — a satisfactory act of political subversion. These newer models depict politicians Bill Clinton, Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder.
Traditional and modern souvenirs
The largest German producer of traditional nutcrackers is Steinbach. After WWII, the family business quickly grew by developing contacts with US soldiers based in the Hanover area who brought back nutcrackers to their families as original German souvenirs. The company develops new collectible models every year, and Darth Vader is among the 350 figures they have on offer.
Beware of cheap imitations
Nearly 130 production steps are needed to create a traditional handmade Ore Mountain nutcracker. Each one has up to 60 parts which are made of locally sourced spruce and beech wood. The beard and hair is usually rabbit fur. The carved nutcrackers are then painted. Original pieces from the Ore Mountains typically cost at least €70 ($80). Some cost way more depending on quality, size and brand.