It’s that time of year again: the Christmas carols are blasting in all the stores, Santa Claus is displayed in windows, and the holiday party invitations are rolling in. And despite all the celebratory diversity in the world today, what with Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanza, the recently-past Diwali, and a slew of other fabulous holidays also taking place in the winter: it’s easy to be consumed by the predominantly monotheistic marketing of the winter season. But it’s also easy to find the magickal and classically pagan traditions lurking beneath the thin veneer of the monotheistic Christmas holiday. From the origins of Christmas tree ornaments to the seemingly purely Biblical story of the nativity itself: these traditions come from ancient pagan times and older conceptions of magick and celebration. And if you look closely, you can see these lovely little esoteric gems sparkling through the already glittering displays of baby Jesus, Christmas elves, wrapping paper, and fake snow.
Case in point: the Nutcracker Ballet. I recently had the chance to observe the Fox Theater’s performance of the Nutcracker Suite in Atlanta, Georgia. For many, the Nutcracker is intrinsically linked with Christmas. Every year hundreds of theater companies around the world perform a variant of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet for children and adults alike. Though familiar with the bare bones of the story, I was much surprised to see how little the story actually had to with Christmas-Christmas. And how much more it had to do with the wider realm of Russian and Germanic faerie tale archetypes and the cosmic theory of different dimensions of being, an element shared with many mythological traditions around the world.
Based off of the German Romantic faerie tale penned by E.T.A. Hoffman in 1816 as The Nutcracker and the Mouse King , the basic story of the ballet follows the teenage Marie/Clara character, whose recent gift of a Nutcracker Prince comes to life. After an epic battle with the Mouse King, where Marie/Clara’s use of her shoe to distract the Mouse King long enough for the Nutcracker Prince to strike a death blow ensures victory for the Nutcracker. The Nutcracker takes Marie/Clara as his savior back to his kingdom in triumph and presents her to the Sugar Plum Fairy who has been left in charge of the realm in the Nutcracker’s absence. The Sugar Plum Fairy and the other multicultural figures of the land celebrate the prince and his savior with a lavish party. In the original story (of which there are many other fabulous details that I am leaving out and which, indeed, the ballet cuts out as well) Marie/Clara stays in the Faerie realm and becomes the Nutcracker Prince’s bride. Often in the ballet versions, she wakes up back at home and the fantastic events of the night before are revealed as a dream; though often elements of the dream will, like the now-human Nutcracker prince, reveal themselves to her in the “real” world.
The Power of the Doll
The anthropomorphic powers of the Nutcracker, whereby he is initially an inanimate object who transforms into a human being are of initial note in our magickal exploration of the classic tale. From the ancient Sumerians through to modern Voodoo, ‘the doll’, as a tiny version of a human ~ has held mysterious power as an emblem of control and sympathetic magick for millennia. Even in the contemporary western world, little girls care for baby dolls ~ thereby psychologically caring for themselves via surrogate and creating a bit of control within their juvenile environments. This same psychology underlines that of ‘the doll.’ The doll can represent a singular person or a group of people. Symbolically caring for or destroying the doll is representative of caring for or destroying that person/people. The idols of the ancient pagan world were these same ‘dolls’: figurines representative of a god or goddess which were cared for, in many cases bathed and fed on a regular basis to ensure the god’s retributive care for mankind. And likewise, the destruction of a curse doll would sympathetically harm the real version of a person it represented.
When a doll comes to life, it is typically representative of one of two ideas. The first is a loss of control over something believed to be controllable; leading to the doll-come-to-life scenario so popular in 1980s horror movies. Or it can be representative of change, of something trapped or dormant becoming free. And it is to this second vein of concept that the Nutcracker prescribes. In the original Hoffmann tale, the Nutcracker is cursed into the shape of the Nutcracker Prince by the evil Mouse Queen and must find true love in order to be freed from the spell and return to rule his magickal kingdom. The Nutcracker becomes a wider symbol of magick which is let loose upon the world. When he comes to life for the Clara/Marie character he is unleashing magick into her humdrum world ~ bringing the fantasy of the faerie realm he belongs to into the more mundane world of her regular schedule. The Nutcracker Prince, like the Nutcracker Ballet itself, is symbolic of the presence of an other, of magick, being present in an erstwhile un-magickal, predictable world.
The Symbolism of the Other Realm
The faerie realm or dream world that the Nutcracker and Sugar Plum Fairy rule over is also of magickal interest. The mythological belief in other realms has a long tradition in world cultures. There are the realms of the gods, the Underworld of the dead, the lands of the giants of Norse myth and the faerie realms of Celtic tradition, and more even. These different realms border eachother and in some instances stand atop each other and yet are distinct, often with some being more magickal then others, either in terms of what the human subconscious is capable of projecting or in terms of sheer physicality of magick.
The realms can be explored under special circumstances. Trips between the layers of these worlds are often the main plot points of pagan myth, be it Orpheus and the Underworld in ancient Greece or Sir Thomas the Rhymer in Medieval lore. And indeed modern physics has, to a certain extent, established that this hazy belief in a place of ‘other’ is vindicated in that there are most likely multiple dimensions and planes of physical being (macro, micro, etc). The special circumstances whereby one could traditionally travel between these ‘realms of being’ varied widely from culture to culture, and over time. Guided visits (think Dante’s Inferno or Hercules and Hermes traversing the Greek Underworld); stumbling upon a portal on a day its open (the Faerie hills of Irish tradition, the coastal tree root portals of South Pacific island traditions); travelling via set cosmic pathways (the rainbow bridge of Norse mythology or the rainbow goddess Iris of Greek legend); or through the use of psychotropic hallucinogenics (the sibyls of Delphi or certain Native American traditions of vision quests) are all methods by which realms could be entered or fallen into. Lewis Carroll was not alone in creating Alice’s Wonderland, hundreds of layers of cosmic creations had come before. Dreams too have also been a popular form of transportation or communication between the worlds. Because in a dream the conscious gives way to the subconscious, which is presumably responding to the Jungian archetypes of the Platonic cookie cutter worlds which lie just out of grasp, hidden in the shadows, in that moment just after sleep but before waking, and on the edge of the known universe.
The Nutcracker’s faerie realm provides both the well from which the magick of the Nutcracker springs; and the setting for the wider exploration of a generic subconscious ‘other realm’. And Clara/Marie is led into it both by the Nutcracker Prince and the Toymaker Drosselmeyer who initially gave the Nutcracker as a gift, and in some cases is represented as a mysterious denizen of the other world himself. The modern versions of the Nutcracker Ballet take particular advantage of the second half of the story and expand upon the idea of the ball and the multicultural gifts given to the Marie/Clara character. In fact, the majority of the second act of the ballet to the displays of the denizens of the faerie realm, beginning with the classic Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy which both introduces the Fairy Queen, the magickal realm they are visiting and sets the stage for the magickal odyssey that ensues; including Arabian belly dancers, giant Russian doll madam replete with tumblers, and dancing flower faeries, to name just a few characters met along the journey.
If you get a chance, go see the Nutcracker for yourselves. Catch it on television, at the official ballet, or even at your son or daughter’s dance recital. It’s well worth a watch. Though the Nutcracker tale is but a few hundred years old, it draws the magickal elements of the ancient world forward with it, pulling them into the modern world. It infuses the holiday season with a more overt glimpse of the magickal and subconscious that underlies the everyday world.
Balina, M., Goscilo, H., and M. Lipovetsky, 2005. Politicizing Magic: An Anthology of Russian and Soviet Fairy Tales. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Cashdan, S., 1999. The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales. New York: Basic Books.
Hoffmann, E.T.A. Collected Works on Project Guttenberg
Paradiz, V., 2005. Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales New York: Basic Books.
Wiley, R.J., 1984. On Meaning in the Nutcracker.Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research 3(1), 3-28.
pictured at top, The Washington Ballet’s 2001 Performance of the Nutcracker Suite