Nutcrackers expanding their ranks

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NEW CANAAN, Conn. — The gang's all here: the football fan, the chef, the teacher and the skier. And there's the Nutcracker prince from E.T.A. Hoffmann's classic Christmas story, who inspired them all.

The quaint Whitney Shop here is just one of many home goods stores filled with this granddaddy and all his offspring that people are collecting and turning into family traditions of their own.

Some become an annual gift — Whitney Shop owner Karen Stinchfield and her grown children make sure there is a new version of the Nutcracker under the tree each year for her husband to enjoy — while other people come in to the store between Thanksgiving and New Year's to see which new characters have joined the pack. They start calling before Halloween to find out when the display is going up.

The wooden dolls, many of which will really crack your walnuts and macadamias, are increasingly popular in holiday decor, although they are hardly new.

The classic Nutcracker soldier, with sword in hand and a prominent moustache, comes from Hoffmann's early 19th-century tale "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." Soon there were kings and policemen as carvers sought to embrace normally stern authority figures, according to Wade Bassett, director of operations for Yankee Candle's flagship store.

Legend has it those tough guy exteriors were intended to ward off evil, while deep down, as in Hoffmann's story, the Nutcracker is most interested in his owner's happiness.

In 1892, at the request of the Moscow Imperial Theatres, Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky set the story to music and Marius Petipa choreographed the dances to create one of the world's most famous and beloved ballets, "The Nutcracker."

But beyond the ballet, decorative nutcracker characters, often with high-top hats and square jawlines, have become a sign of the season. And there's a little more room to have fun with them than with, say, Santa Claus, who is always expected to have on his red suit and rosy cheeks, says Rebecca Proctor, creative director of upscale home-goods retailer Mackenzie-Childs.

Some decorative nutcrackers are gifts, but Proctor suspects just as many go right into personal collections. "Some people have dozens of their own. They love them to death for a few weeks and then tuck them away," Proctor says. "It's the best of both worlds."

The Stinchfield family collection, however, stays up year-round. "They just make you smile," Stinchfield says.