Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet firmly and permanently associated nutcrackers with the Christmas holidays. But nutcrackers have existed long before and long since as serious -- and not-so-serious -- tools to extract protein from obdurate shells. Think nutcrackers are only toy soldiers and Santas? Think again.
A musketeer, sportsman and “rose cavalier” from Nuremberg, Germany. Late 20th/early 21st century; linden and lime wood.
Otto Ulbricht, son of famed German nutcracker maker Christian Ulbricht, made this Chimney Sweep and Night Watchman in 1980.
A king (left) and town crier were the first nutcrackers made by renowned German woodcrafter Christian Steinbach in 1947.
The late Jack Frost of Washington state used Alaskan cedar to make Santa and other percussion nutcrackers. Late 20th century.
This wood/paper mache Napoleon is an early example of a “nussknacker” (German for nutcracker). Thuringia, Germany. 1820.
Yoda: A very green nutcracker he is.
Authority figures – a prince, a king and a friar – made by German craftsmen. Screw-type, made of linden; 1800s.
Wizard of Oz characters made by Germany's Christian Ulbricht. Late 20th century of (L-R) linden, beech, birch and mahogany.
An elephant, owl, rooster and pig made by Anri, a group of Northern Italian wood artisans. Cembra pine, early 1900s.
As the handle lifts on this Anri woman, the mouth opens, and the eyes change color from blue to brown.
"Drinking buddy" Karl, a 6-foot-tall wooden nutcracker by German carver Karl Rappl, was custom-made for George and Arlene Wagner, founders of the Leavenworth (Wash.) Nutcracker Museum.
A horse-drawn beer wagon nutcracker. The nut is cracked between the upper and lower rows of barrels. Germany, made of linden; 2003.
This Russian nutcracker, "Brave Hunter and Forest Spirit," is made of copper alloy. Early 20th century.
Showing nutcracker art's whimsical side, this poor gnome tried to crack a nut and was left hanging. Germany; 1950.
This 19th-century “Happy Couple” is a lever-type nutcracker, Swiss-made of conifer. The romantic couple smooch when a nut is cracked.
This elderly woman with child reflects a trend toward more lifelike human forms. Germany, 18th century.
Detailed face, hair and costume grace this French courtesan. The torso lifts off, revealing the cracking device. France, brass; 1890.
These men seem to be protesting the use of their mouths to crack nuts. England, brass; late 19th/early 20th century.
This brass and enamel pelican was made in Israel. Mid-20th century.
This 20th-century Scottie dog of cembra pine was made by Italian Anri artisans.
This kangaroo can crack a hazelnut in its pouch. Its tail is used as a lever. England, iron; 1930.
Sculptural and elegant, this French nude figure is made of silver plate and brass. France; 1900.
This eleborate screw-type nutcracker is made of ivory, delicately inlaid with pieces of gold. France; 19th century.
The Maharajah of Jodphpur once owned this royal betel cutter, featuring an eagle design. India, silver with iron blade; 1820.
A 19th-century dog of lime wood howls at the moon. The Man in the Moon figures are Swiss-made. Conifer, 19th century.
This expressive duo is dubbed “Contorted Faces.” Looks like they cracked their teeth along with the nuts. France, walnut; 1860.
A man carries a woman on his shoulders in this 19th-century, Swiss-made nutcracker. Those were the days.
French King Francis I, dated and showing intricately carved scrollwork on the handle, eyes and beard. France, boxwood;1569.
This merman’s tail lifts to open this unusual nutcracker. Made in England of boxwood, 1600s.
A bronze chimera poses with some brass animals that can't fly. England, early 1900s.
Nutting stones -- the earliest nutcrackers -- are 5,000 to 8,000 years old. The depressions made nuts easier targets.
Neptune, god of the sea, cracks small nuts under his toes, large nuts under his throne. France, brass; late 19th century
Made in India, this detailed 19th-century horse is made of brass, with an iron blade for cutting betel or nuts.
Nuts crack when this ibex (a wild goat) stomps. Its elaborate horn can be used as a handle. Russia, copper alloy; 20th century