November 01, 2004

Nutcracker Sweet

The Christmas season would not seem complete without a performance of “The Nutcracker” ballet, with music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. “The Nutcracker” was Tchaikovsky’s second collaboration with Marius Petipa, the brilliant choreographer at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater. 
It is hard to imagine, but this ballet almost never came to be. When Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky, the director of the Imperial Theaters, first proposed the story to Petipa and Tchaikovsky, neither liked it very much. Only after Petipa had created the Sugarplum Fairy to rule over the Kingdom of Sweets was he satisfied. Tchaikovsky took even longer to come around, believing that the ballet was too slight for his talents. 
Nevertheless, over time the Nutcracker Suite has become standard holiday fare, with the “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy,” in particular, captivating listeners throughout the world. “The Nutcracker” premiered at the Mariinsky Theater on December 17, 1892. Although Tsar Alexander III found it charming, most critics did not, and the ballet gained a real following only in the mid-20th century, after the 1954 New York City Ballet performance choreographed by George Balanchine, himself a product of the Imperial Ballet School.
The ballet is based on a story by the German Romantic writer, E.T.A. Hoffman, but its strong Russian connections lead many people to assume that it is part of Russian tradition. And what about sugarplums? Do they have a history in Russia? The English word “sugarplum” has come to mean any of a number of small sugary confections, often associated with Christmas. Originally, however, “sugarplum” (the Russian is “krugly ledenets”) referred to a sweetmeat, an old-fashioned term for preserved, candied fruit. Preserving fruits with sugar meant that summer’s bounty could be enjoyed all year round, especially during the holiday season. And because sugar was such a luxury item, sweetmeats, or sugarplums, were real delicacies. This was true in Russia, as elsewhere in Europe.
The traditional Russian Christmas season extends into the new year, up to the celebration of Orthodox Christmas on January 7, according to the old-style calendar. In the period leading up to Christmas, devout Orthodox Christians undergo a strenuous 40-day fast, broken only when the first star appears on Christmas Eve. Then they sit down to the “Holy Supper,” a meatless meal featuring sochivo (a wheat porridge described in these pages in December 2002) and 12 meatless dishes to recall the 12 apostles. Traditional families first spread the table with hay – to recall the Christ Child’s manger – before covering it with a cloth. 
On Christmas Day, mummers once went from door to door to carol in exchange for decorated gingerbread or honey cakes, which were often in the shape of manger animals. The Russian penchant for sweets is well known, and those with a sweet tooth are called lakomki. Contemporary lakomki are somewhat less partial to the kind of candied fruits that their forebears enjoyed, but they still clamor for candied nuts – the fruits of almond, walnut, and hazelnut trees. So here we offer a contemporary recipe for almonds preserved in chewy caramel. But no matter whether you eat traditional sugarplums or sugary nuts, your holidays are bound to be sweet. 

Almond Caramels

1⁄4 cup sugar
8 tablespoons butter
1⁄3 cup honey
11⁄2 cups blanched almonds, coarsely chopped

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