Who can forget the excitement of seeing Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker as a child? The magical “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” in Act II left an indelible mark on me that still stirs up fond memories from my childhood. First performed in 1892 in St. Petersburg (illustrated above), the ballet’s popularity did not spread to the United States until 1944, when the San Francisco Ballet first performed it, prompting subsequent annual productions from over two hundred American ballet companies, and quickly making the image of the toy soldier nutcracker synonymous with the Christmas holiday.
The original story of The Nutcracker and Mouse King (Nussknacker und Mausekönig) was written in 1816 by E.T.A. Hoffman, who was inspired by nutcrackers he had seen at a street market in Dresden. German vendors were also the source for American soldiers, who, during World War II, purchased them as souvenirs for loved ones back home, contributing to the proliferation of nutcracker collectibles. Collecting antique wooden toy soldier nutcrackers today can be a challenge, as many, if not all of the older ones were originally created as tools or children’s toys, and so exhibit signs of wear, and sometimes irreparable damage. A trip to the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum in the Bavarian Village of Leavenworth, Washington, will expose you to the endless variety of nutcrackers made over the centuries, ranging from a bronze Roman nutcracker dating between 200 BC and 200 AD to ones in the form of fictional characters, athletes, cultural and historical figures, not to mention Santa Claus.
Serious collectors are particularly attracted to nutcrackers produced by the Steinbach family, which are pricey and come in a seemingly endless range of forms. But a variety of more affordable nutcrackers can be found just about anywhere—especially at this time of year—from antique stores, online auctions, holiday shops, and even your grandmother’s attic. What better time to start your own collection of nutcrackers as a reminder of the joys of a childhood Christmas.
From left to right: Ulbricht Muskateer, c. 1968 (VintageZen); “Santa Claus” by Erzgebirgische (Cobayley); pair of traditional German nutcrackers (Antikhaus); Cast iron figural nutcracker (GemsOfTimeVintage); and “Hunter” by Erzgebirgische (Cobayley)