One of the many Christmas traditions that our family adopted very early was attendance of the ballet, The Nutcracker. It started when a friend’s daughter performed it with her ballet company and asked us to come. We continued to go see it with our young children and went annually after they were grown. We have been going to see it for so long, we cannot properly begin Christmas until we see it. Part of the draw is because, despite being a ballet, it’s kid friendly. Part is because it contains the most beautiful elements of the Christmas season – celebrations, a little bit of magic, and self-sacrifice. It is, in short, a Christmas fairy tale.
Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet is based on the short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman and was highly popular from its first appearance. Many ballet purists argue it’s not a proper ballet or consider it a hybrid because the first act includes very little dancing, making it more like a play. This is, in fact, one of the things that makes it appealing to children, who may be confused by the symbolism of dance and better understand straightforward storytelling. Regardless, several of the dances are very memorable, and many of Tchaikovsky’s themes are haunting. While the “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” and “Walz of the Flowers” have become directly associated with Christmas, and Disney has popularized “Tea (Chinese Dance)” in the film Fantasia, the “Walz of the Snowflakes” and the “Coffee (Arabian Dance)” are also quite beautiful and appeal to me personally for their otherworldliness. Of course, the dances, beautiful music, and lovely scenery appeal most often to girls, but there is also the precocious boy at the party, a battle scene with the mouse king, and the nutcracker made into a prince that appeal to boys.
Beyond the ballet itself, the primary reason that The Nutcracker remains so popular is its connections to Christmas. It continues to be performed during the Christmas season across many nations, who relate to its theme. The first act opens to a Christmas celebration, which reinforces that it is a Christmas play. Although set in nineteenth century Russia with its formal gowns and traditional waltzes, everyone can relate to the scenes in their own lives – the Christmas party with its toasts and dancing, the quarreling between brother and sister (Clara and Fritz), boys roughhousing, girls playing quietly, a large Christmas tree, opening of gifts, a gift broken and repaired, and late departure carrying children who are falling asleep. Later, the host’s daughter Clara slips downstairs, presumably to look for presents and is frightened by mice. The grandfather clock in the hall strikes midnight and the magic begins. But it’s the traditional Christmas elements, which are all still so familiar, that draws us into the story and make the play relatable to us today.
Another major draw of The Nutcracker is the magic and mystery, which appeal to our innate love of fairy tales. From the moment the children’s uncle, Herr Drosselmeyer, appears, he enthralls the audience with his flying cloak, trick flowers, and magical automaton gifts. Later, when Anna returns to the darkened Christmas tree, Drosselmeyer appears and shrinks Clara until the tree towers over her. The mice attack her, and she is defended by toy soldiers come to life, led by the nutcracker she receives. After the battle, she and the nutcracker fly off to fairy land, where the pair receive magical gifts from around the globe of chocolate, coffee, tea, pastries, candies, and flowers, which dance for them. Most importantly, they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince, who are the Fairy Queen and King of the land of sweets. It has all the elements of all fairy tales – a sense of archaism or foreignness, escape into a fantasy land, supernatural aid, and a happy ending. It is the magical or fairy tale element that helps relate the story to that of Christmas. As I argued last year, these same elements exist in the story of Christmas and Christ, which are fairy tales come true.
Although often not comprehended because it is less overt, The Nutcracker also contains a reference to self-sacrifice, which is the essence of Christmas. In the play, the nutcracker comes to life and leads the soldiers against the Mouse King. When all seems lost, Clara puts herself in grave danger to save the nutcracker by distracting the Mouse King, and the nutcracker sacrifices himself to save Clara and destroy the Mouse King. Afterwards, the nutcracker is reborn as the Prince, who then takes Clara away to a magical land. It is, in fact, the gospel story told in short, complete with resurrection and rapture. It was this part of the play, which consisted of only a few moments, that most represents Christmas, for Christmas is ultimately a celebration of hope, faith, and love – the celebration of the coming of the One who sacrificed Himself for us and will one day take us to a beautiful land.
Many parents may oppose The Nutcracker because of its overt references to magic and fairies, but in doing so, they deny the tools that are most effective in reaching children. As I have repeatedly argued, fairy tales help bring children consolation and healing through escape from the trials of this world. They also help present the gospel story in myth, helping to “slip past watchful dragons,” as C.S. Lewis once wrote. The Nutcracker is one of the best examples of how fairy tales can reach children. It will be forever associated with Christmas, not only because it is set at Christmas, but because it tells the story of Christ in fairy tale guise.
© 2021 J.D. Manders