The Dark History of The Nutcracker

Posted by in US Ghost Adventures

Some Christmas traditions are timeless. Matching pajamas for the family. Gathering to watch the annual Christmas parade. Enjoying a classic Christmas ballet that initially featured a seven-headed mouse and the slashing of a young girl’s arm. 

Yes, one of the nation’s most beloved yuletide classics originated as a grim fairy tale that was once a source of influence for Edgar Allan Poe. Prepare for an unbridled look at the unsavory history of The Nutcracker, where the sugar plum fairies are merely stand-ins for the curses that served as the lead in this macabre holiday narrative.

From the Desk of E.T.A. Hoffmann

‘music reveals an unknown kingdom to mankind: a world that has nothing in common with the outward, material world that surrounds it, and in which we leave behind all predetermined conceptual feelings in order to give ourselves up to the inexpressible…’

This is exceptionally true of The Nutcracker, as it catapults listeners and readers into a different realm, one of fae and beauty. Still, as the ballet dancers move about the stage, dark roots lie beneath the facade.

At The Nutcracker’s premiere on December 18th, 1892, in St. Petersburg, Russia, the ballet paid homage to the czar and his empire, and within the tale of family celebration and childhood fantasy are the footprints of a more malevolent narrative.

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Hoffmann was named Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, but he changed Wilhelm to Amadeus out of admiration for Mozart. And he didn’t just write about music; he also composed it. He drew, painted, and wrote stories — spooky tales that walked the line between fantasy and reality.

Inanimate objects come to life in a handful of Hoffmann’s tales; he was a true champion of imagination running wild. Hoffmann believed that in his time, the Enlightenment, imagination was being attacked by the rise of rationalism — so Hoffmann kept writing, fighting against society’s idea of what was ‘real.’

The Nutcracker and Mouse King

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One of Hoffmann’s tales, titled ‘The Nutcracker and Mouse King,’ centered around a little girl named Marie (or Clara, in some versions) and her Christmas toys. In the original version, Marie worries that her beautiful Nutcracker has been broken. During the night, she awakes to check on it, and to her surprise, it comes to life, and the story begins.

After the household goes to bed, Marie helps Nutcracker fend off invasions of ‘bloodthirsty’ mice and rats. The Nutcracker soon becomes a prince and leads Marie through a snowstorm of ballerinas to a sugary kingdom.

The entire 1816 fairytale is troubling — Marie is said to fall in love with the Nutcracker doll, and she only sees him come alive when she sleeps. In one of the battles between the Nutcracker prince and the seven-headed mouse king, Marie, in her delirium, falls into a glass cabinet, cutting her arm. In this state, she hears stories of trickery, deceit, and a tale of a character who must never fall asleep or is met with disastrous consequences.

Unlike the ballet version, there is no Sugar Plum Fairy that guides Marie and the Nutcracker into the Land of the Sweets. Instead, the seven-headed mouse taunts Marie into giving him all of her toys.

While she heals from her wound, the mouse king brainwashes her in her sleep. She later marries the Nutcracker, and the two of them leave her real life to be together forever in the doll kingdom.

There is also mention of beheadings, ‘death under the executioner’s ax.’

The girl who existed only to take care of her imaginary world became a phantom who vanished into a kingdom ruled by dolls.

The Taming of The Nutcracker

French writer Alexandre Dumas altered the original version, making it less frightening. In 1892, Dumas’ version was turned into a ballet. The Nutcracker didn’t have great success. First, that is, until music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was added to the mix. The ballet soon became a Christmas tradition.

The Washington Post states that:

‘This (the ballet), along with the dancing chocolates and pastries, represent “what you can take from the land, all in service to the crown. And it includes the commodification of people. It’s about what these places are worth to us, not in terms of the people but in terms of spices and goods.’

Strangely enough, seven-headed beasts have appeared throughout history and are interpreted as the ‘demonic and powerful authority of the state.’ It is a coincidental happening for a ballet that is said to honor the czar of Russia and his kingdom.

Walt Disney used the entire score in ‘Fantasia’ in 1940. With this treatment, the music became instantly recognizable to American audiences, and today, it remains classic Christmas music. Though its transformation made it a holiday staple, it’s safe to say there’s a version of The Nutcracker that will satisfy lovers of Christmastime and enthusiasts of the macabre.

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