Christmas Afterthoughts

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

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