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Holiday nutcrackers expanding their ranks

| Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, 9:23 p.m.

NEW CANAAN, Conn. — The gang's all here: the football fan, the chef, the teacher and the skier. And there's the Nutcracker prince from E.T.A. Hoffmann's classic Christmas story, who inspired them all.

The quaint Whitney Shop here is just one of so many home-goods stores filled with this granddaddy and all his offspring that people are collecting and turning into family traditions of their own.

Some become an annual gift — Whitney Shop owner Karen Stinchfield and her adult children make sure there is a new version of the Nutcracker under the tree each year for her husband to enjoy — while other people come in to the store from Thanksgiving to New Year's to see which new characters have joined the pack. They start calling before Halloween to find out when the display is going up.

The wooden dolls, many of which will crack your walnuts and macadamias, are increasingly popular in holiday decor, although they are hardly new.

The classic Nutcracker soldier, with sword in hand and a prominent moustache, comes from Hoffmann's early 19th-century tale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Soon, there were kings and policemen as carvers sought to embrace normally stern authority figures, according to Wade Bassett, director of operations for Yankee Candle's flagship store.

Legend has it those tough-guy exteriors were intended to ward off evil, while deep down, as in Hoffmann's story, the Nutcracker is most interested in his owner's happiness.

In 1892, at the request of the Moscow Imperial Theatres, Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky set the story to music and Marius Petipa choreographed the dances to create one of the world's most famous and beloved ballets, “The Nutcracker.”

But beyond the ballet, decorative nutcracker characters, often with high-top hats and square jawlines, have become a sign of the season. And there's a little more room to have fun with them than with, say, Santa Claus, who is always expected to have on his red suit and rosy cheeks, says Rebecca Proctor, creative director of upscale home-goods retailer Mackenzie-Childs.

Stinchfield sees all types of holiday nutcrackers, from kitschy to elegant, and all types of fans. There are the customers drawn in because their daughter once wore a sugarplum tutu on the school stage; the Civil War buff looking for the Union soldier; the Disney aficionado in search of the Geppetto/Pinocchio-themed nutcracker; and the biker come for the Harley-Davidson dude.

Someone once bought three beekeeper nutcrackers without batting an eye, and there's a baker one holding a cupcake, to keep up with the cupcake trend.

Bari Murdock has a baker, but hers holds a miniature gingerbread house. She also has a skier nutcracker, purchased two decades ago in Austria, which has moved around the world with her.

Murdock, an interior stylist, is having her first Christmas in Chile after living in Connecticut for years. She was happy to unpack the nutcrackers. “It's not quite like an ornament, some inanimate object. It's like a little man. You open the box and say, ‘Oh hi, I'm glad you made the move, and I'm glad you made it in one piece,' ” Murdock says.

She wants her children to remember them as part of their holiday celebration.

Mackenzie-Childs wants to make a new holiday nutcracker an annual tradition, offering a limited-edition one each year.

Proctor went this season with a royal-court jester theme. The mismatched prints and patterns of his outfit also run through stockings and a tree skirt. Elsewhere, the Nutcracker has inspired ornaments, paper goods and dish towels.

At Yankee Candle's flagship store in South Deerfield, Mass., in its Bavarian-castle room, there's a nutcracker section, complemented by beer steins and cuckoo clocks.

“Nutcrackers are for someone who has spirit,” Proctor says. Next year, she's already considering a Scottish bagpiper nutcracker.

“I'm sure a lot of people who collect nutcrackers have no idea where they come from, where they're made or where the tradition started, but we've studied them!” says Proctor.

Many of the most traditional ones are made in Germany in the type of snowy mountain towns you'd imagine, she says. “We are convinced the people working on them are descendants of Santa Claus. They pay incredible attention to detail and quality.”

Sales, however, are just as strong in warm-weather places, says Proctor who, during this phone interview, happened to be in Texas advising Neiman Marcus customers on how to deck their air-conditioned halls.

Some decorative nutcrackers are gifts, but she suspects just as many go right into personal collections. “Some people have dozens of their own. They love them to death for a few weeks and then tuck them away,” Proctor says. “It's the best of both worlds.”

The Stinchfield family collection, however, stays up year-round. “They just make you smile,” Stinchfield says.

Samantha Critchell is a staff writer for the Associated Press.

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