Guide to German Nutcrackers

I had a nutcracker or two growing up, gaily dressed as soldiers and watching over me as I slept. Once I moved out, my mom pulled them out for the holidays and added a few new friends. Then a few more..til there was a horde of nutcrackers to accompany our tree for the Christmas season.

I get the fascination. More than just a way to crack a nut (in fact most aren’t very useful for their original purpose anymore), nutcrackers (or Nussknacker in German) today embody the holiday spirit.

Nutcrackers (Nussknacker) PHOTO: Cheryl Mendenhall

History of German Nutcrackers

A hammer was the original way to open nuts, but as people got fancy, so did our tools.

The design of hinged levers as nutcrackers may date as far back as Ancient Greece. The wooden version was first officially mentioned in The Canterbury Tales (from 1387 and 1400) and were reportedly given to Anne Boleyn by King Henry VIII. Wood nutcrackers in Germany have been in use since the 14th or 15th century.

The most popular origin story of nutcrackers in Germany is that a wealthy farmer wanted to improve his productivity and was frustrated by the slow process of shelling nuts and offered a reward for the best solution. A puppet maker took on the challenge and won the prize with his lever-mouthed doll.

No matter their exact origin, they became popular in German homes. They were made as gifts, alongside toys and puzzles and were thought to be lucky. They were usually the lever type and came as a charming pair in the form of a soldier, knight, or king.The dolls were complicated puzzles of engineering, sometimes including up to 130 individual parts.

The design was perfected in the Erzgebirge region near the Ore mountains in the late 17th century. The Steinbach family made their fortune mining, but their legacy is in nutcrackers. They sold the festive dolls at christmas markets around Germany, but as it was unusual for a household to have more than one nutcracker, they eventually began to expand their sales strategy to include outside of Germany in the early 19th century. They started with nearby Russia, Poland, and Norway. Nutcrackers became so popular, need outpaced production and by the 1870s nutcrackers were beginning to be produced in factories rather than private workshops.

Their reach extended even further when American soldiers were stationed in Germany during the 1950s. Visits to the christmas markets introduced them to this unique souvenir and they returned to the States with this now-popular decorative in droves.

Furthering their popularity was Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker Suite. Going to see this ballet became an annual tradition for many Americans and it fueled the desire for ever more charming nutcrackers.

With the emerging American market, demand once again exceeded supply. This time foreign markets filled the gap. Many of today’s nutcrackers are cheaply made and mass produced. This has knocked out well-respected manufacturers like the Steinbach family company that had been making hand-crafted nutcrackers for 250 years. They based German nutcrackers on traditional folklore or famous leaders and had limited editions like the valuable King Ludwig II series. The company declared bankruptcy in 2016, but their dolls can still be purchased.

That said, the range of nutcrackers on the market today come in a variety of designs and price points, accessible to everyone. If you don’t already own a nutcracker for this Christmas season, maybe it is time.

Guide to Buying a German Nutcracker

While it is fairly easy to find a nutcracker at Christmas-themed stores and toy shops around the world, chances of finding a specific model are increased by looking online like on ebay. And even with the nutcrackers prevalence, it can be difficult to find an authentic German nutcracker.

Some people successfully search for original versions at antique shops and flea markets, but it is a search. New, quality dolls can be bought from several respected companies:

When looking for a nutcracker, consider factors like price, which features you would like, age, manufacturer, and material. If you are looking for a classic German version, many are still produced in Germany and they traditionally wood, depicting soldiers and kings. Nutcrackers deemed collectibles are valued on age, brand name, material, rarity, and craftsmanship. Also, a proper German nutcracker should still be able to crack nuts.

Shopping for Nutcrackers in Germany

First look for the word Nussknacker, German for nutcracker. Traditional nutcrackers can be found all over Germany, but especially in the Erzgebirge region. Towns like Seiffen and Annaberg-Buchholz are full of authentic nutcrackers.

If you are looking in other areas of Germany, Käthe Wohlfahrt stores are Christmas year-round and everything is made in Germany.  There are also Erzgebirge shops in different cities.

So, do you have a Nussknacker in your home?