Monday, December 26, 2022

From Function to Tradition

 by Cindy Regnier

Anybody have a nutcracker in your Christmas decorations? If you do, chances are it’s made to look like an old-fashioned soldier and that it was not made in Germany! For most people, Christmas nutcrackers that look like soldiers call to mind sugarplum fairies and trips to the ballet. Let’s dig into the fascinating history of nutcrackers.

Nuts of all varieties have always been an important component of the food supply, but opening the hard shells is not always an easy task. Excavations of early civilizations have actually revealed primitive types of nutcrackers, used whenever the teeth didn’t quite get the job done (ouch!) The first ones may have simply been pitted stones.

The oldest known nutcracker made from metal can be dated back to the 3rd or 4th century B.C. and is currently in an Italian museum. The first wooden nutcrackers were just two pieces of wood fastened together by a leather strap or metal hinge. Some iron nutcrackers date back to the 13th century and brass nutcrackers have likely existed back to the 14th and 15th centuries. They were made by hand, of course, but later on, molds were used to produce interesting shapes.

By the 16th century European woodcarvers were creating beautiful hand carved wooden nutcrackers Most were made in the likeness of animals or humans. By the 1800s, standing wooden nutcrackers looking like soldiers and kings were produced in Germany where they were called "Nussknacke”. In 1872 Wilhelm Fuchtner, known as the father of the nutcracker, made the first commercial production of nutcrackers using a lathe to create similar designs.

Apparently, no one region is responsible for the evolution of nutcrackers and design varied widely such as brass crocodiles in India; cast-iron squirrels in England; or even porcelain in northern Europe. Wood was the most common material, and it's what German woodworkers turned to in the late 17th century when they began carving the soldier nutcrackers we know today.

At first, they stood alongside carved toys and puzzles, and weren't specifically Christmas-themed, though often given as gifts, and symbolize good luck in German tradition. One popular myth, says that a wealthy farmer found the process of cracking nuts to detract from his productivity, so he offered a reward to whoever could come up with the best solution. A carpenter thought they could be sawed open and a soldier suggested shooting the nuts! Then a puppet maker won the prize by coming up with the lever-jaw theory Yep, he was onto something!. By the early 19th century, toy makers were selling nutcrackers across Europe until demand was such that that began to be produced commercially in factories.

Nutcrackers got their biggest shot of fame when Peter Tchaikovsky adapted an 1816 E.T.A Hoffman Christmas story called The Nutcracker and the Mouse King for the famous ballet, first performed in 1892. The Nutcracker became a huge hit in America where new and creative nutcracker designs began to flourish.

By the 1980s, nutcrackers had become an American Christmas tradition. Nutcrackers began showing up at bargain prices in department stores, with "Made in China" stickers. Check out where yours is from. The truly valuable ones are still from Germany.


My own nutcracker collection that actually belongs to my son, though he doesn’t claim it, has grown so large that I no longer get it out every year. That's part of it pictured at right (that cute little drummer boy is mine too!) How about you? Do you collect nutcrackers or some other Christmas item? I’d love to hear about it in your comments.

Scribbling in notebooks has been a habit of Cindy Regnier since she was old enough to hold a pencil. Born and raised in Kansas, she writes stories of historical Kansas, especially the Flint Hills area. Her experiences with the Flint Hills setting, her natural love for history, farming and animals, along with her interest in genealogical research give her the background and passion to write heart-fluttering historical cowboy romance.


  1. Thank you for posting today, and Merry Christmas! My husband has a small collection of nutcrackers, all of the "Made in China" version. He only has seven, but they stand their ground amidst my snowman addiction. Although, one year I found a snowman nutcracker!!!!

  2. Hi Connie. Nutcrackers that arent soldiers are the coolest. My favorite is the set I have of 12 days of Christmas!