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

By Emily VanSchmus
Updated November 24, 2020
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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 open a nut 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 packed full of sparkly modern versions in all different 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 was released. I dug into the history of Christmas nutcrackers and rounded up some of my favorite modern picks.

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 functional and interesting to look at. Known by the German word Nussknacker, these figures resembled dogs, birds, and other kinds of animals. 

By 1930, nutcrackers began to resemble the human figure we recognize today. The crackers were made to look like small men, whose mouth could be opened and shut with a lever or screw.

By 1865, the German woodworker Wilhelm Fuchtner had made the first commercially-produced and sold nutcrackers. His model was based on a character from Heinrich Hoffmann’s popular children’s book King Nutcracker and Poor Reinhold. He had just begun selling the traditional nutcracker figures when Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, The Nutcracker, was released in 1892. Because the ballet is set during Christmastime (and prominently features a nutcracker character), the products quickly became associated with holiday decor. 

What Nutcrackers Are Like Today

While nutcrackers have been a staple since the late 1800s, there's been a resurgence of the decor trend over the last few years. According to Google Trends, searches for nutcrackers have increased by more than 60% in the last five years, and there are more than 96,000 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.

If you’re feeling inspired to jump on the trend, here are some of my top picks.

Credit: Courtesy of Target

This modern nutcracker set is painted to represent two classic Christmas candies: One is painted like a candy cane, the other a gingerbread cookie. For $10, you'll get two 8-inch nutcrackers you can display separately or as a pair.

Buy It: Christmas Candy Nutcracker Set ($10, Target)

Credit: Courtesy of Target

We’re loving the modern takes on these classic figures, and Target has several to choose from. This 14-inch white and gold nutcracker features a shimmering gold suit and gold-trimmed cape, and will look perfect on your festive mantel!

Buy It: Gold Glitter Nutcracker ($10, Target)

Credit: Courtesy of Amazon

One reason most shoppers are on the hunt for new nutcrackers—rather than hitting the thrift store or looking around Grandma’s basement—is because there are so many themed figures on the market. This year, decorate your kitchen with a nutcracker that looks like a festive gingerbread chef. If you’re feeling inspired, pop a batch of real gingerbread cookies in the oven, too!

Buy It: Wooden Gingerbread Nutcracker ($20, Amazon)

Credit: Courtesy of Target

This 14-inch nutcracker is dressed like Mr. Claus himself. The statue is decked out in a red and white outfit and holds a cane wrapped in mistletoe that will coordinate flawlessly with a traditional Christmas decor scheme. 

Buy It: Santa Claus Nutcracker ($10, Target)

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