Beneath the wooden exterior of the handsomely carved nutcracker lies a rich heritage that comes from the Erzgebirge region of Germany. Recognized worldwide as the home of the nutcracker, the Erzgebirge (translated as “ore Mountains”) first prospered as a mining center in the 13th century, yet the region also provided a rich supply of wood. And by the 1700s as metal resources were depleting, this abundance of wood gave villagers a new livelihood carving simple wooden objects.
The German nutcracker is the most celebrated of all the European wooden collectibles. Originally, each one was created by combining dozens of hand-crafted pieces with thousands of hours of labor. Today over 130 steps are required to complete each nutcracker.
From the very beginning the people left the imprint of their way of life on their products. This explains why most nutcrackers have a grim face, as the woodworkers were depicting the hard life of the mining community, their difficult working conditions, and meager rewards.
Ken Althoff, in The Legend of the Nutcracker and Traditions of the Erzgebige, recounts the German folktale of how the nutcracker seemingly became a useful gadget. The story goes that long ago a miserly farmer offered a reward to anyone who could find an easy way to crack the nuts from his walnut trees. A soldier suggested shooting the nut, a carpenter wanted to saw through the nut–both unacceptable solutions. Then along come a puppet carver with a beautiful puppet painted in bright colors with a large mouth and strong jaws– strong enough to crack the hard walnuts.
The farmer was grateful and rewarded the carver with his own special workshop. Though the story carries no historical truth, it’s correct to say that the nutcracker is at least a 250-year old tradition.