Painted, decorative nutcrackers got their start in Saxony, in Germany, in the towns and villages of the Erzgebirge, the mountain range that today separates Germany and the Czech Republic. For hundreds of years the native inhabitants had mined silver and tin in the foothills, but when the mineshafts began to run dry, they turned to the only other natural resource available to them—the lush forests of the Erzgebirge—to earn their living. For many generations the people of the Erzgebirge had decorated their homes with wooden carvings and statues and had become accomplished woodworkers. It did not take long for the former miners to begin exporting their creations throughout Germany and across Europe. The woodcarvers of the Erzgebirge tell a special story about how the nutcracker was first invented: Long ago, a wealthy farmer lived in the Erzgebirge and near his farmhouse he kept a huge walnut tree. Every year his children would collect hundreds and thousands of walnuts, but they had hard shells that were difficult to crack. They tried to bite them open, or smash them with rocks, but every way they tried was messy and difficult, and it was such a chore, that no one in the family bothered to eat the delicious nuts. So the farmer began asking around to see if anyone knew of a better way to crack the nuts. In town he met a soldier who suggested that he try shooting the nuts with a musket, but the walnuts proved too small to hit easily, and any time the farmer did shoot one, it shattered into a thousand pieces. The farmer’s neighbor, a carpenter, suggested cutting them open with a saw, but every time he tried to saw one of the nuts, it rolled away. One day, a man rode up to the farmhouse in a wagon. The farmer asked him if he knew any way to break the nuts. The man opened a box in the back of his wagon and pulled out a puppet that he had made. The wooden puppet was painted in bright colors and had an impressive jaw painted with large, snarling teeth. The puppet maker took the walnut the farmer offered him, put it in his puppet’s mouth, and broke open the shell with a single chomp of the puppet’s teeth. The farmer was so impressed—and his children so much loved the colorful puppet—that he gave the puppet maker a place to set up his workshop as a reward, which is how the first nutcrackers came to be made in the Erzgebirge. In many places nutcrackers are symbols of good luck and are said to protect the homes in which they reside. This is why, to this day, nutcrackers still bare their teeth and are often dressed as kings, knights, and soldiers—to frighten away would-be intruders.
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Decorated nutcrackers date back to the 15th century, when they first appeared in Germany and depicted soldiers, knights, and kings. Over the years, nutcrackers became popular as decorations, especially at Christmas time. This vendor is out on the street selling his wares out of a hand-woven basket.