How Nutcrackers Became Classic Christmas Decor

The holiday tradition dates back to the 1890s—and it's all because of 'The Nutcracker' ballet.

Growing up, I always knew it was officially time to get into the Christmas spirit when I saw the decorative nutcrackers displayed at my grandparents' house. And until I started researching for this story, it didn't occur to me that I don't remember seeing anyone actually crack a nut open with any of these figures—which is probably why I've always thought of them as a holiday decoration, rather than a functional kitchen tool.

This year, I've seen nutcracker decor everywhere—and not just at Grandma's house. Store shelves are full of sparkly modern versions in all colors. But nutcrackers didn't start out as classic Christmas decor—in fact, they weren't even associated with the holiday until after the ballet debuted. So I dug into the history of Christmas nutcrackers and rounded up some of my favorite modern picks.

traditional Christmas mantel with hanging red stockings
Gemma and Andrew Ingalls

How Nutcrackers Became Popular

The very first nutcrackers were metal tools that simply looked like a pair of modern-day pliers. According to the Nutcracker Museum, by the 15th century, woodcarvers had begun creating nutcrackers that were both functional and visually interesting. Known by the German word Nussknacker, these figures resembled animals and humans.

By the mid-19th century, nutcrackers began to resemble the human figures we recognize today.

Around 1865, the German woodworker Wilhelm Fuchtner became the first to commercially produce and sell nutcrackers. His model was based on a character from Heinrich Hoffmann's popular children's book King Nutcracker and Poor Reinhold. Then in 1892, Tchaikovsky's famous ballet, The Nutcracker, debuted. Because the ballet is set on Christmas Eve (and the hero is a nutcracker come to life), the products quickly became associated with holiday decor.

What Nutcrackers Are Like Today

While nutcrackers have been a staple for centuries, there's been a resurgence of popularity over the last years. According to Google Trends, searches for nutcrackers have increased by more than 60% in the last five years, and there are more than 116,000 Instagram posts about them. We credit this interest to the recent resurgence of vintage decor trends—items like nutcrackers and ceramic trees have become so popular that we named nostalgic decor as one of the top Christmas decorating trends of 2020.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles