I will admit that I’m a bit of a sucker for Christmas and its many traditions: the lights, the trees, the red Starbucks cups. The cynical might grumble that Christmas has become a grotesquely commercialized occasion designed to swindle people out of money they don’t actually have. You Grinches walking among us may not be wrong, but take heart! If the sparkly Hallmarked version of Christmas isn’t your speed, you have alternatives.
A little research reveals a terrifying cast of fantastical characters who at times have been Santa’s lesser-known Christmas co-stars, haunting the dreams of small children for centuries. Remember these names: Belsnickel, Krampus and, maybe the scariest of them all, Gryla. (The only one of the aforementioned to actually make stew out of children, she has three heads with three eyes in each, a long matted beard and teeth like burnt rocks in a grate, apparently.) And of course, there’s the Seven-Headed Mouse King. If you can’t quite place the Seven-Headed Mouse King, ask your favourite ballet enthusiast, who will recognize him as the small-e evil villain from The Nutcracker.
The Nutcracker and the Mouse King made their way into our Christmas traditions through Tchaikovsky’s glittering ballet score, based on a German fairytale by the always-colourful E. T. A. Hoffman. The ballet, Tchaikovsky’s third and final one, was originally a bit of a flop. The story was thought to be too weak and the music too symphonic. Pesky critics. But in the 1960’s, The Nutcracker reappeared, and it’s been an anticipated part of Christmas celebrations all across the globe ever since.
There are good reasons for this. Tchaikovsky understood better than maybe anyone the magical possibilities of combining music and dance. Before him, a ballet was an altogether different creation. The music was expected to be simple and unobtrusive so that it wouldn’t distract from the dancing. Oom-pah-pah essentially sums it up. In fact, the music chosen for a ballet was often a bit of a hodgepodge made of popular pieces that may have been kicking around.
Tchaikovsky imagined something better. His grasp of the capabilities hidden within the sound world of the modern symphony orchestra was unparalleled, and it’s precisely because of this that his three ballets still sparkle in our ears. (Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake are the other two.) Combine this masterful approach to orchestration with a supreme gift for writing an unforgettably good tune, and it’s no mystery why no one ever really surpassed Tchaikovsky in writing ballet masterpieces.
You may run across a few grumblers who feel The Nutcracker (along with Handel’s glorious Messiah) are overplayed. Bah, humbug to them, I say. Traditions mean so much to us at this time of year because many of us find comfort in the familiar in a world that refuses to stop changing. To anyone caught complaining on my watch this Christmas, fear the wrath of Belsnickel.