When we were living in the United States and it came time to crack nuts at home, my family occasionally talked about buying a set of shiny stainless steel nutcrackers and nutpicks. But in the end we always borrowed Dad’s hammer and cracked nuts on the kitchen breadboard. However, when we went to live in Germany, cracking nuts became something special.
When we first arrived in Wiesbaden, Germany, I was excited to see large trucks driving through our neighborhood, loaded with toys, baskets, and food for sale. The drivers would ring bells or play loud German music and would shout out what they were selling. The truck I liked best was the nutcracker truck. Every month when I heard it driving down our street, I ran outside with my family, and we looked at rows and rows of nutcrackers, carved to look like soldiers, miners, mail carriers, and chimney sweeps. The nutcrackers all had big mouths that could be opened and closed when you worked the handles. Although nutcrackers are fun to play with as dolls, their main purpose is to crack nuts with their mouths.
The first nutcrackers were made over 250 years ago. A favorite story with German children about how this kind of nutcracker came about goes like this:
There once lived a very rich farmer who had no friends because he would not share anything. He would not even share his nuts and fruits with friends at Christmastime, which is a German tradition.
The rich farmer was also very lazy. He did not like to crack his own nuts because he thought it was too much work. Once, when his laziness was stronger than his miserliness, he offered a reward to anyone who could find an easy way to crack nuts. His neighbors made all sorts of gadgets, but the rich farmer did not like any of them.
One day a puppet maker took his invention to the farmer. The puppet maker had carved a wooden puppet that was painted to look like a local miner in dress uniform. The puppet’s mouth opened and shut, and it was strong enough to crack nuts easily.
The rich farmer fell in love with this nutcracker. His love for the little wooden puppet changed his life. He started sharing his nuts and all his riches with his neighbors, and he was soon loved by everyone.
We have many different nutcrackers on our display shelves at home. These little, colorful wooden men can all crack nuts, but I still like to use a hammer. I don’t want to scratch the paint on the nutcrackers!