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Going Nuts for Nutcrackers
by Bob Brooke


Lots of people have admired German nutcrackers over the years and many collect them. But few probably know that nutcrackers have been a part of Christmas ever since the first one appeared in human form in the 17th century. For Volker Fuchtner, making nutcrackers has been a family business ever since his great-great grandfather, Wilhelm Friedrich Fuchtner, created the classic wooden nutcracker in Germany's Erzgebirge region.

For Fuchtner, making nutcrackers is still his family’s main business. He’s a traditionalist and doesn’t foresee his company making anything other than the traditional forms. He’s
convinced that his son won't produce any “Uncle Sams” when he takes over one day. Unlike his competition, two non-Erzgebirge firms Steinbach and Ulbricht. Neither have any qualms about making nutcrackers of Uncle Sam, Santa Claus, Abraham Lincoln, Sherlock Holmes and other characters dear to the hearts of the huge American market.

The Beginnings
The classic nutcrackers usually stand 14 to 18 inches high and take the form of a brightly painted king, soldier or some other stern authority figure with huge painted teeth, an upward curling moustache and a nut cracking mouth that reaches to his waist when open.

The Erzgebirge is a range of low, forested hills that form the border between the Czech Republic and the German state of Saxony. Seiffen, which somehow managed to keep the woodworking tradition alive during the days of communist occupation, is its main town. It has more than 100 workshops, mainly small family ones, in which townspeople make the nutcrackers and other items of wooden folk art. There are also huge replicas of the nutcrackers and other wooden figures all over town, and visits to Seiffen at Christmas are special.

Mining used to be the main industry in the Erzgebirge—the name translates as "Ore Mountains"—but the silver, iron, tin and nickel eventually gave out. Woodworking then became a logical occupation for the people, since the region had abundant wood and rushing mountain streams to power their lathes and saws

The earliest wooden products were simple spindles, plates, staffs and common household articles, but they gradually turned to toys, notably cylindrical dolls produced with a lathe. Around 1870, some of the woodworkers adapted these toys to become classic nutcrackers.

The fierce-looking nutcrackers served a purpose. Though Germans looked up to authority figures, they were also a bit resentful of them. The nutcrackers enabled the townspeople to make fun of them. The soldiers weren't limited to the original Ruritanian uniforms. They also could wear spiked helmets or dress as Russian hussars or British grenadiers. And there could be other fierce characters, including kings and robbers. They later appeared as more benevolent types from the German culture, such as night watchmen, chimney sweeps, gnomes, foresters, monks, and even Rumpelstilzchen.

The Grimm brothers, who collected the famous fairy tales, said in their dictionary, that a nutcracker was "often in the form of a misshapen little man, in whose mouth the nut, by means of a lever or screw, is cracked open.

Literature went on to play a major role in promoting the nutcracker. The first incidence was in a short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the romantic writer whose split personality inspired the Jacques Offenbach opera, “Tales of Hoffmann,” first performed in 1881. His short story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” published in 1816, was morbid. Alexander Dumas saw fairytale possibilities in it which led him to rewrite it as a children's' story. This in turn caught the eye of a Russian impresario who commissioned Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky to compose the celebrated Nutcracker Ballet in 1891. In this, a young girl's nutcracker, given to her as a Christmas present by her godfather, Drossehmeier, comes to life, does battle with the evil Mouse King and takes her on a wondrous journey to waltzing flowers and sugarplum fairies.

The Making of a Nutcracker
There are about 120 steps in the making of a nutcracker, which explains why even new ones sell for $150 to $250. Pieces of beech, maple, birch, linden and pine are cut into proper sized blocks and left to season for up to two years in the open air under a roof. The first step in the manufacturing process is done with a lathe. Craftsmen turn the body and head as one cylindrical piece, with beveled shoulders and chiseled out areas for the nutcracker and lever. Others turn the arms and legs separately, fastening them to the body along with the stand.

After forming the body, a hand carver gives the figure a nose, a hat and whatever special features the particular character gets. Next come several layers of priming, after each of which the piece must thoroughly dry. Then a painter uses a fine brush to give the figure its
eyes, moustache, teeth, decorative tunic, sword and other special features. Again, each coat of paint must dry before the painter applies another. Then comes the final assembly, in which another craftsmen adds the lever and glues on rabbit fur for hair, a beard, and sometimes even a moustache.

At least that’s how the nutcracker makers of the Erzgebirge do it. Each firm marks their genuine nutcracker with a stamp showing a stylized soldier on a hobbyhorse and the slogan ECHT ERZGEBIRGE HOLZKINST MIT HERZ or “Genuine Erzgebirge wooden art with heart.”

Variations on the Nutcracker Theme
There are many variations on the nutcracker theme—mini one-inch ones, Christmas tree ornaments, six-foot floor models for stores. Some don’t really crack nuts and the ones that do aren’t often used for that purpose any more because nuts today mostly come already shelled. Nutcrackers also appear on posters, Christmas cards, napkins, place mats, place card holders, coffee mugs, and neckties.

Christian Ulbricht, the present owner of Holzkunst Christian Ulbricht, was born in Seiffen in 1933. His father, Otto, a professional turner has established his own business there in 1928. When the communists took over the town, Otto took his woodworking skills to West Germany, settling in Lauingen, Bavaria, near Augsburg. Christian took over the business upon his father’s death in 1968. When Germany reunified, he was able to reclaim his father’s factory and now operates both, though he does more of the production in Lauingen.

The Steinbach story is similar. The family had worked for generations in the Erzgebirge, but they, too, escaped to West Germany after the communists arrived. Christian Steinbach Jr. Set up shop in 1946 at Hohenhameln, just to the north of the Harz Mountains. Steinbach, too, now has a factory back in the Erzgebirge, at Marienberg.

Early Fuchtner nutcrackers are among the rarest and most valuable. Steinbach and Ulbricht have thrown tradition to the wind since the end of World War II, making nutcrackers depicting cowboys, clowns, oil sheiks and even a New York fireman. The figures usually hold something appropriate, such as a wine goblet, an American flag, or a telescope. There have been hundreds of such nutcrackers, sometimes in limited editions and some of them have become quite valuable.

Steinbach also has put out a series based on the Nutcracker ballet. The figure of Drosselmeier, who holds a miniature nutcracker, can sell for as high as $3,000, while the Mouse King gets between $750 and $1,500. Another Steinbach rarity is the Town Crier.

The whole village of Seiffen becomes a giant "toy store" during the Christmas season, when an outdoor market is held on each of the four Saturdays before the holiday.

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