Christmas Afterthoughts

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This
year, in early December, my wife Leah and I bought a four-foot-high,
brightly painted "Nutcracker figure" made of wood, a stern,
bemustached soldier of the type made famous by the legendary wood
carvers of the Erzgebirge region of Germany and by German writer
E.T.A. Hoffman and Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky. Our Nutcracker
was made in China, and we bought it in a Christmas shop in nearby
Midland.

Then,
a couple of weeks ago in Ruidoso, New Mexico, a very beautiful place
in winter, dominated by the 12,000 foot peak, Sierra Blanca, in
a train-hobbyist store downtown, we bought a three-car painted-metal
"Nutcracker train."

Each
car in the train appears to have been cast or welded into a solid
and rather heavy piece, including some clever nutcracker and snowman
figures. Only the wheels on the train move. The whole little train
is about three feet long and the locomotive stands about eight inches
high. This too was made in China, which land, it seems, is standing
in for the metal miners and wood carvers of the Erzgebirge to supply
the apparently infinite demand of the American mass market for Christmas
symbols.

First,
what do Nutcracker things have to do with Christmas? The connection
seems to be more or less as follows (I have some of this from the
Internet and some from a little booklet, The Legend of the Nutcracker
and the Traditions of the Erzgebirge, that we got from that
same Christmas store in Midland):

The
Erzgebirge ("ore mountains") is a low mountain range in
Saxony, which was in the (East) German Democratic Republic when
the booklet was written by K.W. Althoff, I would guess in the 1970s.
It was printed in English in Minnesota in 1983. The Erzgebirge was
mined for iron and silver and other metals starting more than 700
years ago. The ores began to run out but not the forests, so the
workers shifted to a fantastic range of woodcarvings and turnings
on the lathe and spindle. Their handiwork (and later factory work)
was marketed all over Germany by the 18th century. Among
their products were Nativity scenes and "pyramids" containing
Nativity scenes, with helicopter-like blades at the top which turned,
while also turning several platforms of the pyramid, as candles
burned beneath them. And Nutcrackers that would really crack nuts
between the figures' teeth. These initially were not necessarily
Christmas items except as they were attractive toys.

Althoff
in his booklet indicates the Nutcracker figure goes back at least
300 years. It takes up to "130 procedures" to make a fine
one. "Usually the Nutcracker has a somewhat grim and fierce
face. In times past, and continuing even today, there is a certain
amount of resentment against figures of authority." Kings,
policemen, foresters, military officers frequently meant oppression
and hardship to the people. In Germany it is often said that he
has to "crack a hard nut" if someone faces a difficult
problem or is in trouble. And it is especially true that miners
and residents of the Erzgebirge had many tough nuts to crack in
the course of their lives because of the difficult working conditions
and the meager rewards and the ever-present authorities and their
often harsh demands. So it follows that when they began to produce
nutcrackers, in a sense they enjoyed depicting the unpopular officials
as nutcrackers – nutcrackers that would then work for them as they
crack nuts. So the first nutcrackers and many of them today are
figures of authority.

Ah,
those sly proto-libertarians!

E.T.A.
Hoffman, author of the Tales
of Hoffman
, bought a Nutcracker figure in Leipzig (about
100 miles north and west of the Erzgebirge) about 1818, and wrote
a tale called "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." I have
not read the book but plan to soon. I understand it does not have
a happy ending and involves some fairly scary passages, as "old
tales" often do. The Mouse King in some references becomes
a Rat King, and loses somewhat in charm therefore.

In
1891, a "legendary choreographer," Marius Petipa, commissioned
Tchaikovsky to write the music for a Nutcracker Ballet. Petipa and
Tchaikovsky worked with a "revision" of the Hoffman tale
by Alexander Dumas, intended, I gather, to produce a happier ending
and some pleasanter imagery. Dumas's version is very like the ballet
as we know it and as it is now presented for young audiences everywhere
at Christmas time. I saw a traveling Russian company do it in Odessa
a couple of years ago with local elementary school kids and dance
students as the Mice and Sugar Plum Fairies. Delightful.

In
1892, the first showing of the Nutcracker Ballet took place at the
Mariinsky Theatre of
Russia, home of the Kirov Ballet.

The
Nutcracker made its way to Western Europe and America after World
War I, introduced by the Ballet Russe. The first American full-length
Nutcracker was performed by the San
Francisco Ballet
. And so onwards, to the present tradition of
Christmas performances. The Nutcracker is said to be the most performed
of all ballets. I would think all this illustrates the well-known
genius of Christianity in collecting elements from the surrounding
culture for its symbolism.

The
next question to address is: What were we, a couple of oldsters,
doing buying such Nutcracker nonsense to have in the house along
with the decorated Christmas tree and a lot of other doodads for
Christmas (which here in Texas lasts from Thanksgiving to New Year's;
in the old days in Boston, it lasted from Christmas Eve until January
6, Epiphany or Little Christmas).

I'm
sure I don't know. Not really, although I do have some notions.
First we are, I submit, trying to acknowledge that this is a very
special season that calls for some completely "impractical"
moves. I should prefer to say "spiritual" moves, but that
would be vainglorious. A start of sorts on the spiritual can be
had, however, by being just a bit impractical, by setting aside
however briefly the iron calculus of making every bit of cash spent
make perfect sense. To set aside, that is, the dreary, omnipotent
calculus of Careful Mammon. The poor of the world have often behaved
in such spendthrift ways and as often been clucked at by their betters
for their wastefulness, their improvidence.

Two
thousand years ago a new light came into the world, a new way of
looking at life, of having life, that at once made obsolete
all the old grim postures of power and practicality, even the stoic
and noble but grudging acceptance of a dreadful world. Now the idea
was to love the world as Christ did – but not for an instant believe
any more than he did – any of its notions of what is valuable. Be,
that is, light of heart, and as brave as you can be, and skeptical
of somber, solemn, Scrooge-like people with the air of the grave
about them.

(I
remember a line from Tristram Shandy: "Solemnity is a mysterious
carriage of the body to conceal the defects of the mind.")

A
motto of my father's, or at least one of his sayings that I remember
particularly, was: "Millions for nonsense, not one cent for
necessities!" It was his idea of a joke or at least a wry saying.
(This was, of course, in the midst of the Great Depression, which
for us, a lot of the time, involved Considerable Deprivation.) It
is my idea of a profound principal.

There
is a lot being said about the suppression of Christian symbols around
our fair land. I've seen lists of vandalisms of outdoor Christmas
displays. The thing is not at the level of an updated Kristalnacht,
but it might be seen as leaning that way. I have no doubt, or maybe
I should say little doubt, that Christianity is fated be driven
from any sort of roost on government property, which is today, regrettably,
an enormous percentage of all property in this government-heavy
land.

This
means of course that Christ will be driven quite out of the government
schools; in fact it appears that he is already largely so driven.
This does not bode well for the schools. I subscribe entirely to
a point Gary North's made on LRC on 12/27 in a wonderful essay,
"Why Darwinist's Fear Democracy":

"I
am adamant: the public schools should be auctioned off next Wednesday
— Friday at the latest. R. J. Rushdoony was representative of this
position: The
Messianic Character of American Education
(1963).
So is John Taylor Gatto: The
Underground History of American Education
. I would go
further. Property taxes should be reduced accordingly. All state
and Federal aid to local school districts should cease, since all
local school districts should cease, with all expenditures saved
to become permanent tax reductions."

However,
don't hold your breath.

Meanwhile,
the banishment of things Christian should intensify the rewards
of the private worship of the Christ in churches and homes. And
I sincerely doubt that Christmas will disappear from the stores.
The merchants are too smart for that. In the shops, for all the
Season’s-Greetings blather, nobody for an instant can fail to see
that it is Christ's mass that is being celebrated. One doesn't buy
Season's Greetings presents, one buys Christmas presents. And that
is what merchants intend to sell and will keep on selling with a
fine indifference to elite opinion.

Let
us love the Christ withdrawn from government places.
Let
us be merry with him in our private places,
Because
Christ is the Fact of the ages,
And
Lord of all the happy graces.
Let
us bow our heads and bend our knees
Before
the Christ of the private places.
Let
us honor the humble Lord of the holy graces
As
we deck our halls and bedeck our trees.

And
buy silly Nutcracker figures.

December
30, 2004

Tom
White [send him mail]
writes from Odessa, Texas. He is the author of Bill
W., A Different Kind of Hero: The Story of Alcoholics Anonymous

(2003).

Tom
White Archives

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