Subscribe to RSS feed or get email updates.

Among the various games and sports of an olden Christmas were card-playing, chess, and draughts; jack-puddings in the hall; fiddlers and musicians, who were regaled with a black-jack of beer, and a Christmas pie; also, singing the wassail, scrambling for nuts, cakes, and apples; dancing round standards decorated with evergreens in the streets; the famous old hobby-horse ; hunting owls and squirrels; the fool plough; hot cockles; and the game of hoodman-blind.
Notes & Queries, 1861

Hark! how the wags abroad do call
Each other forth to rambling:
Anon you'll see them in the hall
For nuts and apples scrambling.
From a Christmas poem by George Wither (1588 - 1667)

Nuts for Yule

Nutcrackers, scrambling for nuts, and Christmas

platter of nuts A bowl of nuts, with polished or carved nutcrackers, is part of many traditional winter holiday feasts. But they don't have to sit beautifully on a table. Scrambling for nuts on the ground was a tradition for centuries in various European countries. In Elizabethan England boys would jostle each other to pick up nuts thrown down during Christmas celebrations. In Germany St. Nicholas scattered nuts on his festival day (December 6th).

Many of the tables had bundles of rods with gilded bands, which were to be used that evening by the persons who represented St. Nicholas. In the family with whom we reside, one of our German friends dressed himself very grotesquely, with a mask, fur robe, and long tapering cap. He came in with a bunch of rods, a sack, and a broom for a sceptre. After we all had received our share of the beating, he threw the contents of his bag on the table, and while we were scrambling for the nuts and apples, gave us many smart raps over the fingers. In many families the children are made to say, " I thank you, Herr Nicholas," and the rods are hung up in the room until Christmas, to keep them in good behavior.
Bayard Taylor, Views A-foot: Europe seen with Knapsack and Staff, 1847

Nuts fit in well with the feasting of a secular, or pagan, Yule, but they have sometimes been given a religious significance too. The three parts of a nut - a "trinity" of shell, skin, and kernel - symbolised good luck in Italy, while in 16th century Yorkshire one leaflet explained how like "our Saviour's blessed body" they were. Not only did the three-fold nut represent the bones/skin/soul, but it was also described as a reminder of miraculous birth.   

painted wooden nutcrackers "Character" nutcrackers are associated with the winter holidays: in North America, in Germany, and elsewhere. They seem to blend central/eastern European traditions of wooden nutcracker figures with the Christmas associations of the Nutcracker ballet. Among their less attractive ancestors may be this grotesque character waiting to crack a nut in his mouth, or the devilish figure with nut-cracking legs from a Lithuanian museum. Amusing wooden figures were developed as souvenir nutcrackers in German-speaking countries during the 19th century; some cracked nuts in their mouths.nut about to be cracked

Nutcrackers mostly depend on one of these three methods for cracking nuts: squeezing between "legs" (sometimes called a lever type), screw press designs, and "percussion" or hammering. See these interesting photos of antique nutcrackers of all three types.

For more than 2000 years there have been metal nutcrackers around, but that doesn't mean that people have ever stopped trying to crack them open them with their teeth, or by crushing: with stones or boots, for instance.

For more nutcracker history and pictures, enjoy these two sites:

Nutcracker with oval hollows with toothed borders....the shell is cracked without injury to the kernel. Nut-sized gold-wrapped package among walnutsNutcrackers.org.uk
The Leavenworth Museum

And on this website see:

Resources for finding out more about culinary antiques

19 December 2007

StumbleUpOnlogo   Delicious

Back to top of page

You may like our new sister site Home Things Past where you'll find articles about antiques, vintage kitchen stuff, crafts, and other things to do with home life in the past. There's space for comments and discussion too. Please do take a look and add your thoughts.  (Comments don't appear instantly.)

For sources please refer to the books page, and/or the excerpts quoted on the pages of this website, and note that many links lead to museum sites. Feel free to ask if you're looking for a specific reference - feedback is always welcome anyway. Unfortunately, it's not possible to help you with queries about prices or valuation.