Photograph by Conrad Kuiper, Creative Commons 2.0
Photograph by Conrad Kuiper, Creative Commons 2.0
The Plate

Why Fancy Nutcrackers Don’t Actually Crack Nuts

“Dear Santa, I would like tickets to all 81 Nationals baseball games and a nutcracker that cracks nuts, ” my 6-year-old son’s note read. The nutcracker doll is by far the more difficult request and, placing value on the amount of time I’ve put into the search, more costly.

“Oh, honey, nutcracker soldiers don’t crack nuts,” I remarked off-handedly when I read his letter. That one sentence sent me down a rabbit hole and through the looking-glass, because my son asked me why, and I didn’t have an answer. I bought him a gift-shop nutcracker soldier on the way home from the very ballet performance that had inspired his request but both he and I were clearly dissatisfied with the purchase. Of the two Santas we visited, both shrugged off the request as if my son had asked for a unicorn; one Santa actually guffawed and just said, “We’ll see.” I was on a quest. I had to find one that cracked nuts and I had to find out why so many didn’t.

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My search for a functional soldier nutcracker is as perplexing as the actual cracking of the nut was to mankind for millennia, before we created tools to violently bash through the seemingly impenetrable shell and get to the sweet-meat reward inside. Nuts are more popular than ever, with reams of studies touting their health benefits.

But nutcrackers of any kind, even the standard two-pronged lever, fell out of fashion as society moved toward less work and quick reward. Machines now shell our nuts because really, who can be bothered with the effort and mess of fumbling with snacks when we’re doing something as important as, say, watching TV? And how are we supposed to be on our computers while we’re using our hands to crack nuts? Mechanical separation is intoxicating to we who fought the man vs. shell battle for so long, but cracking nuts has a slow-food loveliness to it.

According to Arlene Wagner of the Nutcracker Museum, nutcracker soldiers were made in the Erzgebirge region of Germany around 1800. (Although woodworkers made nutcrackers of many character shapes much earlier than that.) Around the same time in 1816, E.T.A. Hoffman wrote the story The Nutcracker and the King of Mice. Nutcrackers in the shapes of animals and people were popular at parties, as cracking nuts was a light task to engage guests over conversation after dinner (a tradition I intend on resurrecting). The first American production of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet The Nutcracker, based loosely on Hoffman’s book, occurred in 1940 and was immediately popular. Wagner says that the ballet’s acclaim, combined with American soldiers returning home from Germany after World War II with souvenirs in hand, made nutcrackers a must-have collectible.

Browse more than 5,000 antique nutcrackers at the Nutcracker Museum in Neuhausen, Germany.

“Before 1940, I don’t know of any nutcrackers that didn’t crack nuts,” says Wagner, whose collection includes more than 6,000 nutcrackers. Intense demand for nutcracker dolls as decorations, combined with mechanical shelling of nuts that allowed nut meat to be sold pre-shelled and pre-packaged, changed that. Cheap labor satisfied American demand for ornamental nutcrackers and could quickly produce them in American-friendly and -marketable images such as cowboy-wranger and Mickey Mouse that the original skilled woodworkers in Erzhebirge—which was now under Russian control and didn’t enjoy much creative freedom—could not.

It was the perfect storm: increased demand for nutcrackers and decreased demand for cracking nuts. Additionally, nuts are bigger than they used to be, says Wagner. Genetic engineering of nuts to enhance pest and disease resistance in the past decades has increased the size of nuts, so many nuts don’t fit in the cracking mechanism (the soldier’s mouth) any more.

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None of this concerns a six-year-old boy whose whole world consists of cracking things open to see what’s inside.

I Googled. (Some people call this “research.” This is insulting to anyone who has ever performed actual research.) My requirements were simple: a nutcracker that resembles the soldier nutcracker from the ballet that can crack nuts in its mouth. Any size, any price. When I found others desperately searching for the same, it was like coming upon others with the a similar rare condition. Message boards read something like this:

Does anyone know where I can find a functional Nutcracker for my daughter?

Sure they have tons at Kohls! And they’re on sale!

No, functional, like, they can actually crack nuts. Not just decorative, like, for putting on your mantle.

They probably crack nuts, they’re nutcrackers, right?

Most nutcrackers don’t crack nuts.


And so on. Even eBay’s Nutcracker Buying Guide page erroneously identified that of the two types of nutcrackers, decorative and steel tool, “both types are functional.” One site claimed to sell several nutcrackers that are “functional” but the rest of the English translation was so poor and the nutcrackers were so cheap, I was certain they were not. When I realized that I was planning on ordering them only with a credit card that was about to expire in case the webmaster stole the number, I decided to forget about it.

Leg work was required. At the first few stores, salespeople guided me to bins of wobbly-mouthed soldiers that couldn’t crack an egg, let alone a nut. Boutiques are usually the answer to difficult shopping questions but those $200 nutcrackers you see in year-round  Christmas stores and online don’t crack nuts any better than the $9.99 checkout-aisle versions. I was determined to end the cycle of abuse, for me and for every functional-nutcracker-searcher out there.

I finally, desperately, discovered and called Wagner’s museum in the Bavarian-replica town of Leavenworth, Washington and asked the question I had repeated so often it was a mantra: “Do you sell or do you know where I can purchase a functional soldier nutcracker doll, like the one in the ballet?”

“Sure, we have one made exclusively for us by Seiffener Nussnackerhaus,” she chirped back. I paused. It cracks nuts? Yes. In its mouth? Yes. Like, so the shell comes off and you can eat them? Yes. She was starting to think I was a little crazy. I was getting dizzy. It was all handmade and $188, but I had found it. Not available online, but by phoning the Nutcracker Museum. I ordered it sight unseen; after my son fell asleep one night, my friends and I—high on triumph—ate an entire bag of nuts cracked with the nutcracker soldier.

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At last, I found a nutcracker that can crack nuts.

Santa will deliver this year but, more important, I know why the nutcracker won’t crack nuts, and we’ll have a fun after-Christmas-dinner activity. And for those who Googled “functional nutcracker” and landed here, you’re welcome. Because the whole thing almost drove me, well, bananas.