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Life as a Nutcracker

Reckoning with an absurd holiday tradition

by

JESSIE HYNES ILLUSTRATION
  • Jessie Hynes illustration

The thing about Christmas is that none of its traditions really make sense. Rarely, as kids, do you wonder why there's a tree in the house, or why Santa puts the presents under the tree, or why there are various items stuffed in giant red socks.

I say this because every now and then I'm reminded about how, as a little kid, I used to dress up as a nutcracker and walk around beating a plastic drum at anyone who'd pay attention. Other kids had imaginary friends, or they pretended they were superheroes. I, on the other hand, was a nutcracker.

I never, until recently, asked myself why I liked nutcrackers. I remember my family went to The Nutcracker ballet in the '90s. And then every year for Christmas, I'd get a new nutcracker to display in my room. I'm not sure when this translated into putting on a red blazer, blue pants, and wrapping a plastic bucket with tinfoil so I could walk around hitting it with drumsticks.

Again, none of it made any sense. There's no reason I should have liked nutcrackers. I didn't really like ballet. I rarely collected anything. I never particularly enjoyed cracking nuts with the mouths of little wooden men dressed in old soldier outfits.

Only recently has it occurred to me that dressing up as a nutcracker may have been kind of strange. When my wife and I first started dating almost four years ago, she saw a picture of me, the nutcracker, in my parents' living room. She thought it was cute, of course, but she tells me that's because she saw a little kid "literally walking to the beat of your own drum," which is what people say when they think someone is a little weird.

A couple of months ago, everyone at the Inlander played a game where we all anonymously wrote down something that everyone else wouldn't know about each of us. I said I dressed up as a nutcracker as a kid. As everyone tried to match the answer with the person, my co-workers made jokes about who the nutcracker kid was. When our publisher, Ted McGregor, read the answer aloud, he seemed uncomfortable and suggested that I revealed too much.

I wasn't the only little kid who liked nutcrackers. For some reason, a good percentage of Americans collect nutcrackers every Christmas. And like Santa Claus and Christmas trees and stockings, there's an origin story behind why we do this. Just now, I typed "what are nutcrackers" into Google, because I have absolutely no idea what a nutcracker actually is, and I found a 1,500-word article on Slate entitled "A brief history of nutcrackers." But before clicking on it, I changed my mind. Not everything needs an explanation. I liked nutcrackers because, for one reason or another, it became a Christmas tradition, and I probably associated it with the joy of the holidays or something. And that's really the only reason for any of it. Each holiday symbol becomes a memory of a time when we all come together, and even if the symbols themselves are absurd, we hold onto them as long as we can. ♦

Wilson Criscione is an Inlander staff writer and former nutcracker.