The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Life!

December 24, 2013

Nutcrackers

The nuts and bolts of a Christmas tradition

BECKLEY — There’s nothing quite like the winter holidays to bring the nuts out — in shopping center return lines, in brandy-soaked fruitcake, in traffic or, by the estimation of certain Scrooges, in chairs around the family table.

A simple ritual began by busy single-mom Deb Evans when her youngest of three was born earns an honest reputation of Christmas magic, one entirely nut-free.

The army of nutcrackers she, Taz Armentrout, 20, Kate Armentrout, 23 and Zach Armentrout, 27, have for two decades collected and placed in rows on the mantel, in the dining and living rooms and even in a bathroom inside her Beckley home, stand at colorful attention, cracking open memories instead of pecan shells.

Pink-sequined and Lego-shaped, Wizard of Oz and Halloween-inspired — the legions of men (and a few ladies) possess a value that can’t be measured in terms of money.

“Nutcrackers can range in price up to thousands of dollars each, but I would never spend that much for one,” Evans said, adding, “Part of the fun for me is finding unique ones that are affordable.”

A pharmaceutical representative by profession, Evans canvases stores and websites each fall hunting the perfect nutcrackers to add to her collection.

“The search starts early to find three different ones for the kids. I realized about five years ago that they were growing up and would one day have their own homes to take their nutcrackers to, so I started buying one for myself each year, too,” she stated.

Evans carefully inducts new members with a Sharpie to mark their “owner’s” names on the base, along with the year of matriculation.

Now some 82 recruits strong, Evans’ mostly wooden nutcrackers are all shapes and sizes, and each is attached to a memory that files down from the attic alongside. She is grateful for the help her kids give her in setting the decorations out around Thanksgiving, especially when it’s time to bring the Boss to town, a 45-pounder she kept her eye on one year until it went on markdown.

Zach described how Nutcracker Day turns the house into a makeshift Santa’s Repair Shop, a hot glue gun the tool of choice for reattaching stray wooden arms and feet.

According to Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum (www.nutcrackermuseum.com), the earliest nutcrackers were solely functional, not decorative — predictably, they were rocks used by nomadic tribes. These evolved into the first wooden nutcrackers, just two pieces of wood with a strap or hinge.

The nutcracker was refined into art by woodcarvers from England and France, their work assuming the likeness of people or animals. The soldier and kingly styles characterizing today’s nutcrackers are attributed to German toy and puppet-makers; these crafters added the hinged-jaw and began mass-producing the figurines as toys rather than tools by the early 19th century.

When E.T.A. Hoffmann’s classic Christmas Story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” was commissioned by the director of Moscow’s Imperial Theatres in 1891 to be choreographed and set to music by Peter Tchaikovsky (www.nutcracker.com), the nutcracker itself became indelibly connected to season and to a sense of childlike wonder. A Christmas decoration was born.

Evans, too, attributes her modest fascination to the motion of The Nutcracker Suite.

“It didn’t hurt that Sherry Rose (of Beckley Dance Theatre) is my dad’s cousin.” She grew up watching The Nutcracker performed by Jerry Rose's dancers, one explanation for her present affinity.

For her adult children, the nutcrackers are sentinels of times spent together — a  jewel-encrusted mob of remembrances vouching for a mom who stood tall on her merit, who never let them down or tired to see them through to productive lives of their own.

Perhaps proof of the success of Mom’s long-ago experiment, the kids tell the best stories about the citizens of her collection. Like the time when Evans could find WVU Mountaineer nutcrackers aplenty (Zach is a WVU graduate and Taz is currently a sophomore mechanical engineering student there), but wrangling a Concord University nutcracker (where Kate earned her degree in art education) proved more of a challenge.

“So she made one,” said Zach, referring to a lion nutcracker Evans found, with a Concord University logo she taped on.

“The animals (a zebra, elephant and a duck) are the first ones we got — when Taz was born,” older brother Zach also remembers. “The nutcrackers are a cool tradition that we’ll appreciate and probably carry on …”

“… if we ever have children of our own,” Kate finishes, jokingly.

As straight-faced as they are, nutcrackers can be amusingly ironic — like the one given to Kate with plenty of pink, boas and bling — the exact opposite of the Adventures on the Gorge employee’s no-frills personality.

To Taz, they are annual reminders of the unwavering commitment of the woman he calls “ the best Mom in the world.”

Not a collector by nature, unless also counting an impressive display of shot glasses from regions she’s visited (“they’re easy to put in a bag or suitcase and carry home, but I’ve never used any of them”), Evans will be on the lookout next year to add four new upright, toothy-grinned members to her family … at least until the grandchildren arrive.

“I hope the kids will carry this tradition on, once they have families of their own,” she said.

— E-mail: lshrewsberry@register-herald.com

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