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The magic inspired by a well-loved ballet fills many Lowcountry homes at this time of year. In places both near and far, characters brought to life by Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" more than 120 years ago take center stage outside theaters and inside houses.

Collectors of the mostly wooden replicas of nutcracker characters dust them off and place them prominently among holiday decorations. Many began collecting nutcrackers after being enchanted by a performance of the ballet in childhood.

The story involves a young German girl, a Nutcracker Prince and a fierce battle against a Mouse King.

For some, only the traditional king, soldier or rat king nutcrackers standing at attention and impeccably dressed in finely tailored outfits will do. But it's not at all infrequent to find a collector with ones that replicate hobbies, animals or even famous people.

Nutcrackers from German villages where locals have become known for crafting them are prized. But so are those purchased in brick-and-mortar stores, online and at estate sales where they await new homes.

James Island collector

Roy Smith's mother passed her few small nutcrackers to him when she downsized in 1990. Afterward, his wife, Becky, started giving him nutcrackers. He did not set out to become a collector, but now has more than 400 nutcrackers. The largest is 57 inches tall and the smallest, ľ inch.

"Usually, I put them up after Thanksgiving and they stay up until early in January," he says. "All of them are put in the same place each holiday season. I just remember where they go.

"I buy Santa Clauses, bakers and fishermen. I like Santa Claus because of Christmas. I like bakers because I put them in the kitchen. And I like fishermen because they remind me of growing up on Lake Murray. None were very expensive."

His sister, Cyndi Walker of Greenville, also collects them. "She has more Halloween nutcrackers than I do, but I'm not going to try to catch her."

Which are his favorites?

"The ones my children give me, hands down," he says. They include a collection of international ones from his daughter and son, Susannah and Noah. He also has 75, most of which they gave to him, that are Christmas tree ornaments.

Peninsula collectors

Sam Clawson Jr.'s parents started giving him nutcrackers for Christmas when he was about 8, his wife, Lauren Clawson says. Each of their 50 nutcrackers is unique and many represent her husband's interests through the years such as golfing, fishing and history.

Now, the collection also includes ones his parents give to her as well.

Some are prized Steinbach nutcrackers, but like most collectors, less valuable ones are cherished nonetheless. They include the beer drinker, cook, scrooge and a cowboy wearing chaps.

"I am a big Christmas person and he goes along with it," says Clawson, whose birthday is Dec. 25. "I like to examine them and am very particular about where they go. All the Santas go on one shelf. They have beautiful velvet coats with so much attention to detail. Some have little jewels on them and they are just so intricate. I really like Nordic Santa because he is just very regal looking.

"It's fun to play with the nutcrackers and decide where each will be placed," she says. "We put on the Christmas music and make a big thing of it. Recently, we welcomed our first child into the world and look forward to continuing the tradition for her."

So far the young couple, married five years, do not have any lady nutcrackers, but 9-week-old daughter, Bitsy, is inspiring them to buy some. Clawson says Bitsy's first nutcracker probably will be an angel.

Adams Run collector

Jeannine Laban has four children and each has a nutcracker collection, she says. When her husband, Joe, passed along the nutcracker his mom gave him to their first child, a tradition was started.

Laban's own appreciation for nutcrackers was nurtured in childhood.

"We lived in New York and my mother loved the ballet," she says. "Each year she would take us to see the 'Nutcracker' at Lincoln Center. It just means a lot to me, especially with my mom passing in May.' Laban adds that she just bought tickets for she and her daughter to attend a local performance.

"There are about 80 nutcrackers in the family," she says. They include those owned by Christopher 22, Michael 18, Ryan 16, and Kate, 13.

"I try to find ones related to what the kids are into that year - golfers, soccer players, artists and pirates. They just mean so much to my kids.

"My little girl, who is 13, has a few more than the boys. She arranges families and makes up stories about them. It's become something that is fun for our family. Our biggest nutcracker is probably a foot and a half and our smallest, 2 inches. I think my favorites are Father Time and the one that was my husband gave to our son, because that started it all.

Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.