History of The Nutcracker: the Ballet That’s a Christmas Tradition

Bill Petro
6 min readDec 18, 2021

On December 18, 1892, The Nutcracker premiered at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, a week before Christmas.

Nutcracker Popularity

The Nutcracker has had such an enduring influence on the celebration of Christmas for more than a century that no one even notices that it never mentions Christ or the Nativity. In the last 70 years, the popularity, especially in America, of stage, film, and televised performances of the ballet has cemented it firmly into the tradition of Christmas celebrations. It has Christmas trees, toys, snowflakes, candy, fairies, and of course, children.

Nutcracker’s Initial Reception

One of Tchaikovsky’s most famous pieces — like Handel‘s initial London performance of Messiah — The Nutcracker was panned by critics when it premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892, a week before Christmas.

One griped:

“The Nutcracker cannot in any event be called a ballet. It does not satisfy even one of the demands made of a ballet.”

Another said:

“For the woman dancer there is very little in it, for art precisely nothing, and for the artistic fate of our ballet — it is yet one more step downwards.”

The critics also took umbrage against its plot or lack of:

“… nor does it have a story, but rather a series of unconnected scenes, recalling the latest pantomimes which the boulevard theatres flaunt.”

For one critic, this reliance on mere “spectacle” was “an insult.” He added:

“God grant that similar failed experiments do not happen often.”

Nutcracker Success

It has become such an American tradition that most American dance companies include it in their repertoire — because it pays the bills.

Dance critic Lauren Gallagher notes that in the case of the San Francisco Ballet, for example, “The show garners about 40% of the company’s ticket revenue each year”, while Daniel J Wakin points out in the New York Times that “A holiday run of The Nutcracker is generally the financial foundation of an American…

Bill Petro

Writer, technologist, historian. Former Silicon Valley tech exec. Author of fascinating articles on history, tech, pop culture, & travel. https://billpetro.com