A nearly 400 year Christmas tradition
December 13, 2022
I’ve long been fascinated by the thought of how primitive people learned about foods and what was safe to eat. Take nuts, for example. Here were these things encased in shells which grew on trees. I imagine the people watched as animals collected and ate the nuts.
People, being inventive creatures, are always looking for solutions to problems. I suppose they figured out that if they placed the hard shell on a rock and then hit it with another rock that they could get to the seed inside, the nut meat. And nut meats, it turns out, are delicious.
Over the millennia, those ever inventive people devised better ways to get to the nut meats, developing devices which have become known as ‘nutcrackers.’
Some of the earliest ones were forged from metal and became prized items. The Infallible Wikipedia tells us:
“Nuts were historically opened using a hammer and anvil, often made of stone. Some nuts such as walnuts can also be opened by hand, by holding the nut in the palm of the hand and applying pressure with the other palm or thumb, or using another nut.
Manufacturers produce modern functional nutcrackers usually somewhat resembling pliers, but with the pivot point at the end beyond the nut, rather than in the middle. These are also used for cracking the shells of crab and lobster to make the meat inside available for eating. Hinged lever nutcrackers, often called a ‘pair of nutcrackers’, may date back to Ancient Greece. By the 4th century in Europe, nutcrackers were documented in England, including in the Canterbury Tales, and in France. The lever design may derive from blacksmiths’ pincers. Materials included metals such as silver, cast-iron and bronze, and wood including boxwood, especially those from France and Italy. More rarely, porcelain was used. Many of the wooden carved nutcrackers were in the form of people and animals.
During the Victorian era, fruit and nuts were presented at dinner and ornate and often silver-plated nutcrackers were produced to accompany them on the dinner table. Nuts have long been a popular choice for desserts, particularly throughout Europe. The nutcrackers were placed on dining tables to serve as a fun and entertaining center of conversation while diners awaited their final course.”
The wooden nutcrackers we associate with Christmas originated in Germany in the late 17th century in the Ore Mountains. Again, from the Infallible Wikipedia:
“One origin story attributes the creation of the first nutcracker doll to a craftsman from Seiffen. They were often given as gifts, and at some point they became associated with Christmas season. They grew in popularity around the 19th century and spread to nearby European countries. As the demand grew, nutcracker doll production also began on a mass scale in factories. Friedrich Wilhelm Füchtner (1844–1923), commonly known in Germany as ‘father of the nutcracker’, began the first mass production of the design (using a lathe) at his workshop in Seiffen in Saxony during 1872.”
As the popularity of the dolls grew, nutcrackers were often given as gifts to children so they could crack the nuts which filled their stockings. Although nowadays stockings are filled with toys and candy, at one time they held nuts and fruits.
Most of the wooden nutcrackers sold today are not equipped to actually crack nuts but are for decorative purposes only. One reason for this is that those always inventive people continued to find better ways to harvest nuts. Today that is done in factories with machines which can crack open large quantity of nuts with efficiency.
I hadn’t much thought about the origin of the soldier nutcrackers until the late 1980’s when the hubby and I lived in the Timberline neighborhood in Sammamish, Washington. (Note – it wasn’t even ‘Sammamish’ at that time, just unincorporated King County!)
As a new development ,Timberline attracted primarily twenty and thirty something professionals who worked in nearby Redmond and Bellevue or commuted to Seattle. Many in the neighborhood were transplants from other states from all over the U.S.
It was never anything official, but Christmas became a big deal in the neighborhood. I suppose that many of us were simply trying to replicate the cozy warmth and hominess of our childhoods by putting up lights and outdoor decorations. Truly, the Timberline neighborhood had more than its share of over the top displays.
But there was one street in particular which gained a reputation for being ‘THE’ must visit lane due, in large part, to resident Peter Johnston and his giant nutcrackers.
In December 1991, I was the editor of a neighborhood newsletter, The Timberlines, and decided to write a feature story about the Nutcrackers. From my story:
“Peter’s vision began four years ago when he and his wife, Sue, were looking at Christmas lights in Issaquah. On one street, every home boasted a large ‘Nutcracker’ decoration. Painted on plywood, the soldiers created a very nice Christmas effect. Although impressed, Peter’s vision was much grander. ‘Why not,’ he thought, ‘Do Nutcrackers in 3-D?’”
Peter started creating his 3-D nutcracker using materials he worked with during his day job as an electrician. Soon the ‘Nutcracker’ took on a life of its own and went far beyond simple 3-D. Suffice it to say that when it was finished, the Nutcracker was nearly seven feet tall and its head was filled with motors, lights and moving levers. The mouth opened and closed and the eyes blinked.
It was an instant holiday hit. The next year he built a Nutcracker which drummed and the year I wrote the article, he completed a firefighter who held a hose and poured water on a flame.
The article I wrote is far too long to include in its entirety, but I’ve attached it for anyone who wants to read the whole thing.
‘Peak’ Nutcracker was, for us, that Christmas of 1991 when our son was not quite two years old. Every day of December, around five in the late (and dark!) afternoon, we would bundle into the car and he and I would go to see the Nutcrackers. I would have to roll the window down so my son could see them better and talk to them. It was a magical time thanks to the inventiveness of one Nutcracker artist and his vision.