Although popular in the German Erzgebirge for centuries, the industrious little soldier known as the nutcracker did not gain prominence in America until about 50 years ago. Here's a look at the evolving popularity of the German nutcracker.
The term nutcracker first appeared in the Brothers Grimm's 1830 High German dictionary as nussknacker: "in whose mouth the nut, by means of a lever or screw, is cracked open."
In German culture, the nutcracker symbolized good luck and protection from harm. A common German Erzgebirge proverb says, "God gives the nuts, but we have to crack them ourselves." With the German nutcracker figuring so prominently into everyday Erzgebirge culture, he was a popular gift and a cherished treasure.
The Nutcracker on Stage
In 1892, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky transformed a German story about a rat king and a brave nutcracker into the magical ballet we know as "The Nutcracker." Complete with sugarplum fairies, and evil rat kings, the endearing tale features a nutcracker who comes to life in order to save Christmas.
At first, "The Nutcracker" was only performed in Russia to little critical acclaim. In fact, "The Nutcracker" didn't gain popularity until a 1934 London production, over 40 years after its original showing.
The Nutcracker in America
Combined with the rising popularity of Tchaikovsky's magical ballet, the onset of World War II also brought the German nutcracker closer to American hearts.
American soldiers stationed overseas at the time snatched up german nutcracker dolls at German markets and fairs. The protective traits associated with the nutcracker made them especially dear to homesick, endangered servicemen.
By the end of the war, the nutcracker soldier had come home with the real soldiers, enjoying a rise in popularity that continues today.