history

The Nutcracker (book & puzzle) – review

The NutcrackerSmiling boy holding the Nutcracker book

by E T A Hoffman, retold by Rachel Elliot
illustrated by Valeria Docampo
Paragon, Bath, 2017

Age group: around 4 or 5 and older
Format: 24 page book ad 36 piece puzzle

A classic Christmas story (one even done in the Myer windows!), this version of The Nutcracker includes a jigsaw puzzle for young children with the book.

The story

A girl, Marie Stahlbaum, is given a wooden nutcracker on Christmas Eve. The nutcracker comes to life and fights an army of mice then takes Marie to the Land of Sweets where they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and other dolls.

Some history of the Nutcracker

Hoffman originally released The Nutcracker and the Mouse King in 1816, and the full story takes longer than one night.

The story has been retold and presented in many ways in the last 202 years. Alexandre Dumas retold it as The Nutcracker which became the basis of Tchaikovsky’s ballet by the same name in 1892. It has been made into a few movies and telemovies, including Mickey Mouse, Tom and Jerry and Care Bare versions.

Parts of the music from the ballet are also well known and used in movies such as Disney’s Fantasia, the 1950’s marionette TV film The Spirit of Christmas, and the 1954 Little Match Girl movie. There have also been recordings, video games and TV shows made with parts of the story and/or music of The Nutcracker

Some versions are only loosely connected to the original story, and there are variations in the character names – Marie Stahlbaum has had different surnames and also been called Clara (the name of Marie’s doll in the original book).

A 1996 musical, The Nutcracker Musical, goes further into why Franz became a nutcracker and how Clara could help change him back – note that Franz was her brother in the original story. A light opera, this musical includes the full 12 days of Christmas as well!

My review

So, onto this book version of The Nutcracker!

I love the illustrations – they are beautiful and a combination of real and whimsical. The colours are muted to give atmosphere rather than standing out as a child’s counting or colour book.

collection of pages from The Nutcracker book

The story is about Clara, starting when she received the nutcracker on Christmas Eve from her godfather, the best toy maker in town. Her brother fights her over the nutcracker, and the nutcracker’s leg is broken. The toy maker repairs him and she promises to always keep him safe. After the Christmas Eve ball she remembers she left him under the tree.

Clara goes downstairs to get him and when she approaches the tree the magic occurs and she shrinks. She sees the mouse king, then the nutcracker and toy soldiers come to life to battle the mouse king. When the nutcracker is surrounded she throws her shoe at the mouse king to save the nutcracker. The nutcracker wins and then takes Clara to his kingdom which is the land of sweets. As she watches the sugar plum fairy dance, she gets sleepy and wakes up back home under the tree on Christmas morning.

While it is a long story and a reasonable bit of text, our three year old friend was enchanted by it – and now is desperate to see the ballet!

The puzzle was challenging for a three year old, but he achieved it… The pieces were a good size for his little hands and easily fit together. Overall it was a good activity for a pre-schooler, especially as the book gave context to the image on the jigsaw.

Young boy putting together the Nutcracker puzzle

Would we recommend it? I would recommend it – the illustrations were beautiful and captivating just as The Nutcracker should be, blending dreams into reality.

And our three year old friend still wants to dance with a Nutcracker so it obviously impressed him!

 

For or against Christmas…

I just think of Christmas as it is now – a family-focussed time of colour and magic, with religious meaning to some. So it’s interesting to find out about how Christmas has been viewed in the past.

An article by Gerry Bowler covers some of the key changes in Christmas celebrations, such as it taking about 300 years after Christ’s birth before his followers celebrated his birth at Christmas.

1911 painting of a family around the Christmas tree

Albert Chevalier Tayler’s “The Christmas Tree” from 1911 is the type of traditional family Christmas many of us imagine for Christmas past.

And I found it fascinating that Christmas was banned during the sixteenth century and actually disappeared from places like Scotland, the Netherlands and even England for a while. it amuses me that “in England and America it had become an alcohol-centered season of low-class rowdiness.”

I guess it is the reappearance of Christmas in the early 1800s that has given us the images of English families sitting around a Christmas tree and building the values of sharing and togetherness I now associate with Christmas.

Of course, there are still many opinions about Christmas – it is not religious enough, it should be removed from religion and be secular, it is too commercial, and so on – but I can’t see Christmas disappearing again and agree with Bowler’s closing words “We may expect [Christmas] to be celebrated and attacked for centuries to come.”

 

* Image is in the public domain

Why do we have Christmas wreaths?

Recently, I was asked why we hang wreaths at Christmas time so here is some of the history and tradition behind wreaths…

  • wreaths symbolise the celebration and happiness of Christmas
  • Advent wreaths for Christians (particularly Catholics) are traditionally made of evergreen branches around four candles and represent everlasting life
  • ancient Persians had wreaths as a symbol of importance and success – they usually wore the wreaths on their heads
  • wreaths were a symbol of hope for spring when hung in pre-Christian Eastern Europe (especially Germany) – the green showed new life and candles gave light in dark months
  • Greeks used laurel wreaths for thir Olympic champions in 776BC or so. Some say one athlete hung his wreath on the wall as a memento and that is where hanging wreaths began
  • Romans gave wreaths to their military heroes and leaders
  • the circular shape would be linked with wreaths for heads but also represents the cycle of life (no beginning or end)
  • Americans in the 19th century used wreaths to honour deceased loved ones at Christmas – initially at the cemetery, the wreaths were brought home and hung

Now many people just hang wreaths because it is a Christmas tradition, or because they have a beautiful wreath they want to display (including wreaths made by chidlren or friends.)

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