Are Nutcrackers Only a German Thing
Are Nutcrackers Only a German Thing?
German nutcrackers are wildly popular collectibles that are made in the Erzgebirge mountain region of northeastern Germany. German nutcrackers have been used and display around Christmas throughout the world for hundreds of years, but the question remains, are German nutcrackers solely a German thing? Let us take a look at nutcrackers throughout the ages to see how German nutcrackers came to be and how Germany became known as the home to the most popular nutcrackers in the world.
Nuts have been an important part of the human diet for thousands of years. Unfortunately for us, the soft and tasty insides of the typical nut are ingeniously protected by its hard and oftentimes impenetrable outer shell. While the German nutcrackers of today are mostly used for decoration rather than practical nut crackers, the tools used to crack open nuts have transformed dramatically over the centuries. The earliest nutcrackers were of course rocks, but as man began making his own tools the manmade nutcracker was born. The oldest known metal nutcracker ever found dates back to 200 B.C. and was found in the ruins of a Roman city. This nutcracker was made of bronze and used two levers to crack the hard shells of nuts in half.
The precursors to the modern German nutcrackers came from France in the 13th century. Iron nutcrackers were fashioned into animal shapes and were both functional and decorative. In the 14th century, brass nutcrackers began to be hand wrought, but by the 15th century England was making brass nutcrackers by pouring hot metal into molds. Now today, German nutcrackers are all made out of wood, but the first wooden nutcrackers were not developed until the 16th century by French and English woodcarvers. Most of these decorative wooden nutcrackers were carved out of the woods that surround the nutcracker designer, but boxwood nutcrackers became a popular choice for its fine grain and color uniformity. By the 18th century, wooden nutcrackers were being made throughout Europe, including Austria, France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. These early wooden lever nutcrackers were usually carved into the likenesses of animals or people.
It was at this time that the German nutcrackers we are familiar with today began taking shape. Popular German nutcracker designs began to take the form of unpopular societal figures, such as kings, soldiers, police officers, and church leaders. These characters symbolized the cruel ruler or leadership classes which were seen as oppressive figures to the common man. Many people collected these German nutcracker designs in order to express their dissatisfaction with those in power. Being able to place a nut inside the mouth of an unpopular political or religious figure, such as a king or a priest, and making him break nuts with his teeth was considered quite humorous and belittling to the ruling class at the time. By the 19th century, this style of German nutcracker was taking over as the dominate nutcracker design and just about everyone in Germany owned their very own German nutcracker. These German nutcrackers were often displayed at Christmastime and were used as the central decorative piece on many German tables.
German literature played a major role in advancing the popularity of the German nutcracker around the world. In 1816, E.T. Amadeus Hoffman wrote the famous fairytale, The Nutcracker and the King of Mice. This story featuring a German nutcracker that comes to life was incredibly popular throughout Germany and the rest of Europe. In 1845, the famous French novelist Alexandre Dumas adapted the original Hoffman story into a play. As a result of this, Tchaikovsky was commissioned to compose the music to the famous Russian ballet, The Nutcracker Suite in 1892. While not an overnight success, the ballet and German nutcrackers became quite popular throughout Russia. It was not until 1934 when the ballet was performed for the first time outside of Russia in London that the ballet and the German nutcrackers themselves became famous throughout all of England and Europe.
Surprisingly, the popularity of the German nutcracker as a collectible did not come to the United States until the late 1940s. While American soldiers fought the Germans during World War II, they eventually began being exposed to the many rich traditions of the German people. As Germany was defeated, American soldiers began going to the many Christmas markets and fairs that existed throughout the country. This is where the first Americans were exposed to German nutcrackers and brought many of them back to the states where their families began displaying them in their own homes during the Christmas season. With the popularity of The Nutcracker Suite throughout Europe, the ballet finally came to the United States in the 1950s and Americans have been collecting German nutcrackers ever since.
Today, you can find nutcrackers that are mass produced throughout the world, including China, but they just do not hold a candle to the authentic German nutcrackers that are still handcrafted by skilled artisans in the Erzgebirge mountain regions of Germany. Other countries, like Switzerland, have tried to compete with the popular German nutcracker market, but none have come close to the quality and rich history that the original German nutcracker possesses. While other metal nutcrackers are still made and sold today for the sole purpose of cracking the ever popular nut, there is just something about owning an authentic German nutcracker that keeps it a popular and growing collectible around the world. So, as they say, do not be fooled by cheap imitations because nutcrackers are truly a German thing!
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