What better time to talk about nutcrackers than on the Eve of Christmas? | Written by Daniel T. Dodaro
This weekend, I went to go and see The Nutcracker by the State Ballet Theatre of Ukraine. Although I am not typically a fan of silent performances, I found this one to be oddly delightful. It was a great production: the choreography, costumes, and music were top notch. All that aside, however, I think I was most enchanted by the ballet’s titular main character: the Nutcracker himself. A warrior. A gentleman. A friend. He proves himself time and time again until, at the climax of the play, our tiny hero finally battles the Mouse King, a strange villain with a cryptic motivation, and (spoiler alert) wins.
The Nutcracker has a simple plot, but its meaning is quite nuanced. I see it as a reminder that we must face the unknown with honor and courage, whether that unknown takes the form of a diabolical mouse or a long winter night.
So, apart from the ballet, what’s special about nutcrackers, anyway? I think it’s best to start by discussing their simplicity. Nutcrackers generally adhere to a memorable formula. A wooden base. Check. Stiff arms and legs. Check. A cylindrical torso and head. Check. Some sort of massive, flamboyant headgear. Check. As ubiquitous as this formula is, nutcrackers make fantastic blank canvases. Artists of all cultures and creeds can tweak the initial wooden block design into something wholly their own. Candy kings, wandering mountaineers, doctors, or vampires. You name it. Nutcrackers can be larger than a house or smaller than a Christmas tree ornament. The artistic opportunities are endless.
The Nutcracker’s value is only heightened by its functionality. As you probably know, nutcrackers have a powerful jawline attached to a lever that allows them to crack nuts. This makes them quite useful if a person has a bag of walnuts on hand (and don’t we all wish we had a bag of walnuts on hand?). To be fair, however, most modern-day nutcrackers have lost this functionality. The cheaper ones probably couldn’t even crack a peanut without their wooden jaws snapping in two. But due to tradition, the lever remains (as it should).
Simple and functional. But are those the only two reasons why nutcrackers are so prolific, so deeply engrained in Christmas culture? I’d argue it goes a little deeper than that. Nutcrackers are also special because they are protective. They act as a sort of inanimate guardian. Although they are unconscious, they alertly guard our mantels, tables, and doors each night. Although they are tiny, they unabashedly ward off winter’s harsh chill. And, maybe, at the heart of it, that’s why we admire them so much. Maybe, it’s because nutcrackers remain immovable and rigid when we don’t have the strength to be. They unblinkingly stand guard over us as the fireplace dwindles to ash, gripping tightly to their swords and facing the unknown. In that sense, nutcrackers are a reliable, steadfast pillar in our home. They do not balk in the face of evil. They face it head on.
Overall, it may seem like a foolish flight of fancy to write a ballet about a nutcracker protecting a young girl from a “mouse king.” But in a lot of ways, it makes complete sense. Nutcrackers are tiny-but-mighty, hand-carved personifications of chivalry.
The fact that they crack nuts is just a bonus.
This article was written by Daniel T. Dodaro, the author of Death, the Gardener.
All stories begin and end with a question. It is up to each and every one of us to discover what that question is.