The origins of figural nutcrackers, wooden carvings of soldiers, knights and kings, go as far back as the 15th century, when rural German miners would carve these fanciful, yet functional creatures to supplement their meager incomes. The Christmas time association with the nutcracker begins with The Nutcracker and the King of the Mice, a story originally published in 1816 by E.T.A. Hoffman in a collection of children’s fairytales. The story tells of a little girl’s favorite Christmas toy, a nutcracker soldier, coming alive to protect a magical kingdom against an army of mice and their seven-headed Mouse King.
In 1892, Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov transformed Hoffman’s fantasy into the ballet, The Nutcracker, which proved to be not only the composer’s most famous work, but the most popular ballet in the world.
While The Nutcracker was first performed in its entirety in the United States in 1944 by the San Francisco Opera Ballet, it is the version created by noted choreographer George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet in 1954 that is most emulated around the world today.
Tchaikovsky’s ballet is no doubt one reason for the popularity of nutcrackers, but the association of nutcrackers with the Christmas season may also be linked to the tradition that gilded nuts were once a popular tree decoration, and something equally decorative was needed to open the nuts and enjoy their contents.