Taking a page from ‘Nutcracker,’ historic Delaware mansion decked out in Christmas style


This is the time of year for “The Nutcracker,” the ballet about armies of mice and sugarplum fairies.

This is the 200th anniversary of the story on which that ballet is based, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,”  published in 1816 by the German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann.

The famous ballet, with music by Tchaikovsky, was created 76 years later, in 1892.

Much of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” is a story-within-a-story, recounting how the Nutcracker became a nutcracker. In order to break a curse inflicted upon a princess, a young man had to be found who had never shaved nor worn boots, able to crack an unbreakable nut — the Krakatuk nut — and hand it to the princess. He then had to walk backward seven steps. He stumbled at the end, so the curse transferred from the princess to her hero: he was turned into a nutcracker.

That kind of fairy tale logic is hinted at in the historic Wilson-Warner House in Odessa, Delaware. Brian Miller, the assistant curator of the 18th century mansion built by a wealthy merchant, dressed up the rooms to resemble Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum residence, the German family featured in the story.

Pointing people to the original tale, Miller tucked clues in the décor, including the wig and cape of Drosselmeyer, and the children’s toy cabinet, which were described in detail by Hoffmann.

“We start with what they know, but then we tell them a little more, the differences and similarities,” said Miller, who trained the house docents in the minutiae of the story. “Like, all of Act II in the ballet, it’s all for dancing. Well, there wasn’t dancing in the original story of 1816.”

The extended fantasy sequences showcasing exotic choreography of Spain, Arabia, Russia, and China — and, of course, the celebrated Sugar Plum Fairies that have people leaving the theater humming a tune — are no where in the original story. Miller included subtle nods to the ballet by playing Tchaikovsky’s music in the hallway and including Russian nesting dolls on a mantel in honor of the composer. However, those touches are easily overlooked — the house decorations are intentionally overstuffed for the holidays.

An abundance of nutcrackers — 160 of them, all different varieties — are scattered throughout the house. They are on loan from local nutcracker collectors and the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum in Leavenworth, Washington.

During the holidays, Miller is allowed to get funky with the house.

“It allows us to be way more creative. It doesn’t have to stick to the documentation of the house,” he said. “It also allows us to fill the rooms. Usually the rooms are much sparser. You know, these are very wealthy 18th century people, but they don’t have as much stuff out as we normally are used to at our own homes, today.”

The Nutcracker also allows him the creative latitude to include German beer steins in the house, which never would have been present in the Quaker residence.

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