2008 42¢ Contemporary Christmas: Holiday Nutcrackers, convertible booklet
US #4360-63 – Nutcrackers became popular in America after WWII soldiers sent them home from Germany as gifts.

On December 18, 1892, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker premiered in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

2008 42¢ Holiday Nutcrackers
US #4360-71 – Complete collection of 12 2008 Nutcracker stamps
1998 32¢ Ballet
US #3237The Nutcracker is one of the most popular ballet performances in America.

Germans coined the phrase, “Gott gibt die Nüsse, aber wir müssen sie knacken selbst.” (God gives the nuts, but we have to crack them ourselves). This verse is recited to teach German children that life is often difficult, but if you persevere the rewards are plentiful. This life lesson may have contributed to the popularity of nutcrackers, as it helped children to enjoy the benefits of hard work.

2009 44c Contemporary Christmas: Toy Soldier, convertible booklet
US #4428 – 2009 Nutcracker stamp from convertible booklet.

The Germans also have a folktale telling the origin of wooden nutcrackers. According to the story, a wealthy farmer was looking for an efficient way to crack the walnuts that grew on his tree. He decided to hold a contest for the local craftsmen to come up with a nut cracker. The local puppetmaker brought the farmer a brightly colored puppet with a large, strong jaw and won the contest. He was rewarded with his own workshop.

2009 44¢ Contemporary Christmas: Toy Soldier, ATM booklet
US #4432 – 2009 Nutcracker stamp from ATM booklet.

In reality, early nutcrackers existed centuries ago. Nuts were a popular dessert in Europe, and nutcrackers were placed on tables as a source of conversation as well as a way to open shells. By the 1800s, the Erzgebirge region of Germany had become well known for their nutcrackers. Many craftsmen made their living creating and selling them. Nutcrackers were often given as gifts, as they were thought to bring good luck to the home. Often shaped like soldiers, they protected the family from danger. The large mouth and teeth were thought to scare the evil spirits away.

Realizing the nutcracker’s importance to Germany, E.T. Amadeus Hoffman wrote the story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King in 1816. Decades later, Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky was tasked with producing a double-bill program for the Imperial Theatres. One performance would be his opera, Iolanta, and the other a ballet. Working with choreographer Marius Pepita, he decided to adapt Hoffman’s story into a ballet.

2008 42¢ Contemporary Christmas: Holiday Nutcrackers, ATM booklet Colorano Silk Cachet First Day Cover
US #4368-71 – Colorano Silk Cachet First Day Cover
1978 13¢ American Dance: Ballet
US #1749 – Tchaikovsky’s music for The Nutcracker is some of his most famous work.

The Nutcracker premiered on December 18, 1892 to poor reviews. Much of the criticism was aimed at the dancers themselves and the extensive use of children in the ballet. But the response was much more positive for Tchaikovsky’s score. It was called “astonishingly rich in detailed inspiration” and “from beginning to end, beautiful, melodious, original, and characteristic.”

Due to its poor reception, The Nutcracker wasn’t performed again for many years. Then in 1919, Alexander Gorsky arranged a new version. He changed many of the problems identified during the premier performance, particularly by casting more adults. The Nutcracker was first performed outside of Russia in 1934 in England. The ballet then made its way to America in 1944.

1993 Disney Friends Christmas, Mint, Set of 9 Stamps and 2 Souvenir Sheets, Antigua-Barbuda
Item #MDS235 – Stamps picture Disney characters acting out The Nutcracker.

The ballet’s popularity soared, particularly in the 1960s. Today, The Nutcracker is a Christmas season staple in America, viewed by millions every year.

Click here to view a performance of The Nutcracker by the New York City Ballet.

Discover what else happened on This Day in History.

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  1. Mystic. Thanks for the story of the Nutcracker ballet and for the link to the YouTube video performance. To Don, his immediate family and his extended Mystic family: Merry Christmas and a very Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year.

  2. In the 1960s there was a version on television. I can’t remember who produced, directed or starred. Would sure love to see it again.

  3. The Nutcracker was one of the favourites my wife’s and I attended for many years in Calgary,
    Alberta. We would take the grandchildren every year. Even when they were very young they loved it.

    Tchaikovsky’s music is still a favourite.

  4. Thank you for the wonderful story! The only small correction I have – the name of this famous choreographer was Marius Petipa.

  5. I saw the ‘Nutcracker’ with my family years ago. My brother had a friend whose family would watch it at Christmas time. It was performed at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, CA. Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is considered by
    those in the classical musical realm to be the ‘master of melody’.

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