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Legacy of the Steinbach Nutcracker

Step back in time with us as we spin the tale of the Legacy of the Nutcracker...

Nutcrackers represent good fortune, power and strength. German folklore and the superior craftsmanship, all contribute to the enormous popularity of nutcrackers, some of the most highly sought-after collectibles of all time. The dictionary defines a nutcracker as “an instrument of cracking nuts” but under further examination you realize that a nutcracker is much more than a tool:

“A nutcracker is a symbolic figure, one that gives happiness and protects your home and family”
explained Herr Steinbach.

According to German folklore, nutcrackers were given as keepsakes to bring good luck to your family and to protect your home. The legacy states that a nutcracker serves like a trusting dog that guards your family from evil spirits and danger. It is believed that a nutcracker shows its teeth to all the bad things in the world and acts as a carrier of good luck and goodwill.

Nutcrackers also reflect the dining customs of our ancestors. Originally, nuts were served during the dessert course and guests cracked their nuts as they lingered over wine and sweets. Usually these nutcrackers were used to crack hazelnuts or soft shell pecans. In these enjoyable social settings, an amusing or unusual nutcracker delighted friends as a whimsical “light conversation” piece and a treasured possestion.

According to Herr Steinbach, the legacy behind nutcrackers runs deep into the mysteries of life. Perhaps, one of your ancestors planted a kernel of a nut into the earth. This tiny kernel grew into a strong and sturdy tree over hundreds of years. And if you sat under this mature tree, you could hear the rush and rustle at the top, telling you about the gods and legends of the past. Before harvesting the trunks of the elder trees, the nuts and fruits that were eaten from these trees sprang eternal life.

Woodcarvings, used as souvenirs, gifts and for religious purposes, were popular since the 11th century. The lathe became readily accepted by the people in forest areas and propelled the development of art and a new trade of woodturning was established in the 15th and 16th centuries. The woodcarving trade was so prosperous that a decree was published permitting woodcarving to be preformed only by native craftsmen and their families. Initially plates, staffs, spindles, other household items and eventually toys were crafted from wood.

The lathe was introduced to the Erzgebirge region of Germany in the late 15th century and early 16th century. The Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, Augustus the Strong, popularized wood-turning techniques and the lathe (see Creation Process) became widely accepted in the Black Forest areas, which were rich in timber. Consequently, a new independent brand of wood craftsmanship developed, wood turning. The first lathes were not motorized, but operated like old sewing machines driven by the tip of the feet. Initially, they were used to produce staffs, spindles and household items, and then in the 1600s, small toys like jumping jacks. In 1750, 5 to 15 lathes could be consolidated using the same hydraulic power in the mines.

Steinbach's wooden nutcrackers were inspired by the novel The Nutcracker and the King of Mice, written between 1776- 1822 by writer and composer E.T. Amadeus Hoffman. Steinbach was not the only one inspired by the book. From this book came the popular Nutcracker Suite composed by the legendary Peter Tchaikovsky. The Nutcracker Suite Ballet successfully debuted in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892 and today endures as a holiday tradition that is played at New York’s famous Lincoln Center and scores of theaters throughout the world.

You may have also heard of the tale of a nutcracker that nursed a child back to health, from the bestseller, Struwwelpeter and the booklet King Nutcracker and The Poor Reinhold, written by Dr. Heinrich Hoffman, back in 1851. As the story goes:

“Once there lived a wealthy, miserly farmer who sought a way to crack nuts. A local woodcarver, from the village of Sieffen, crafted a puppet with a large mouth and sturdy jaw, which he gave to the farmer for cracking walnuts. The ecstatic farmer was so pleased that he donated chocolate with nuts, fruitcake and golden walnuts used for Christmas tree decorations to all the people of Sieffen. Eventually the farmer gave the woodcarver a workshop to make the most beautiful nutcrackers in the world.”
This tale was noted in the Legend of the Nutcracker and The Traditions of the Erzgebrirge,
written by Kenneth W. Althoff.

The Steinbach family has been producing fine wood products since 1832. In addition to the nutcrackers, the smoking figures, Christmas ornaments and music boxes are handcrafted in the age-old tradition. Each nutcracker is individually hand-turned and hand-painted by highly skilled artisans who train for many years in the fine art of woodcarving.

Each folklore legend and unique character is created with the meticulous attention to detail, using the finest northern European woods including aged beech, maple, birch, linden and pine.To produce one nutcracker may involve up to 130 separate procedures, including curing and drying the wood for three and a half years. Each Steinbach nutcracker has been designed with its own personality and design.

In the Erzgebirge’s poor soil, it often takes a lifetime before a little tree is the necessary size, “as thick as an arm.” But in the end, plants grow into trees. Before harvesting the trunks of the old trees, they harvest nuts and other fruits from them. For every tree taken, many more are planted. This recycling of trees is like both a science and art to them.

Back to: Page 1 Steinbach Family History (click here)