IT’S been a nutcracker of a week the last few days in Salisbury. On Sunday, the Odeon showed Peter Wright’s production of the Tchaikovsky ballet, as performed by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House in London.

Then this coming Saturday, Salisbury BID and the Salisbury Christmas Market are hosting a Nutcracker Trail with eleven or so figures dotted around the city, ready to be discovered, with a prize for one lucky detective who tracks them all down.

The Nutcracker’s place as part of a modern Christmas is a relatively recent phenomenon. Tchaikovsky’s ballet, which was first performed in Moscow in 1892, is derived from an 1816 story by the German writer ETA Hoffman, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

Hoffman himself was a richly romantic and darkly gothic writer, and his original version of the tale reflects that. Maurice Sendak, author of Where The Wild Things Are, described Hoffman’s story as having ‘bite and muscle, the way the Grimm fairy tales do’.

Tchaikovsky used a different version of the story – the 1844 adaptation by Alexandre Dumas, which was lighter than the original, with the darker edges smoothed away. The ballet itself was far from an immediate success.

Tchaikovsky himself was unsure of it, in one letter describing it as ‘far weaker than The Sleeping Beauty’ and complaining about ‘the absolute impossibility of depicting in music the Sugar-Plum fairy’.

One newspaper review of its opening night described it as ‘a pantomime absurd in conception and execution, which could please only the most uncultured spectators.’ It wasn’t for a half a century that The Nutcracker really took off. In the UK, it wasn’t performed until 1934, only becoming a regular fixture in the 1950s.

In the US, the starting point was Walt Disney using the music for a sequence in his 1940 film Fantasia. This was followed by the first American production in 1944, by the San Francisco Ballet and in 1954 by the New York Ballet.

Such is the popularity of the ballet in the US, it now accounts for 40 per cent of the annual revenue for many ballet companies.

As for the wooden nutcracker figure, he originated in Germany in the late seventeenth century.

The mouth of the figure would open wide via a lever to crack the nut, with the original designs often of authority figures.

After the Second World War, American soldiers stationed in West Germany would send them home as Christmas presents, another reason why the ballet took off at this time.

Today the role of The Nutcracker as part of Christmas celebrations seems second nature.

But as with so many traditions, its origins and appropriation tell a somewhat different story.