Nutcracker Christmas

By Dawn De Busk
Staff Writer

NAPLES — This time of year, children fall asleep “while visions of sugar plum fairies dance in their heads.”

STANDING GUARD — Hank Wernau carved this 8-foot-tall nutcracker from local pine logs. After studying skillfully designed nutcrackers in Germany and Austria during a recent vacation, Wernau carved a larger-than-life working nutcracker for the Christmas theme on his property off Edes Falls Road in Naples. (De Busk photo)

Meanwhile, Hank Wernau’s mind has been filled with images of a larger-than-life nutcracker, and solutions of how to bring it into existence through his wood-craftsman skills.

Now, an 8-foot-tall wooden nutcracker stands guard in front of Hank’s log home off Edes Falls Road in Naples.  The colorful statue works — an operational lever opens and shuts the mouth.

Playfully dubbed “Uncle Nut,” the nutcracker was part of an artistic collaboration for Hank’s extended family over the Thanksgiving holiday. The long, lanky character served as a conversation piece at the Wernau’s annual Christmas party, and set the nutcracker theme for that gathering of friends. Uncle Nut even elicits morning greetings from Hank’s wife, Cecile, who said she can’t help cracking a joke or two with the nutcracker as she heads to her job.

“He’s taken on a personality around here,” Hank laughed. “After Christmas, I am going to have to store him in my shop so I’ll have someone to talk to.”

While it is almost natural to hold conversations with such a life-like lawn ornament, Hank also appreciated the process of creating the holiday icon from a just an idea and materials he had on hand.

“There is always a sense of satisfaction for me when I claim something that wouldn’t have been used — a piece of wood or a log lying in the woods. It’s satisfying to be able to turn the wood into something that people look at,” said Hank.

The couple’s home is decorated with head-turning furniture and functional art pieces that he has handcrafted. When Cecile’s cooking spices kept falling behind the stove, Hank created a spice rack with cutout forest and moose figures, which buffer the containers from toppling out of sight.

The nutcracker concept was one that lingered after their vacation this September to Germany and Austria — where they saw several souvenir nutcrackers. But, none made it into their suitcases. When they returned to Maine, Cecile playfully put the bug in her husband’s ear — suggesting he design his version of the hero from the well-known ballet.

Later, the farmer’s porch was set up to resemble the scenery from the Nutcracker Suite.

FAMILY RESEMBLANCE? — Hank Wernau’s sister, Teresa Tashoukos, of New York, holds hands with ‘Uncle Nut,’ the 8-foot nutcracker that Hank designed from pine logs — using a chain saw, chisels and latex paint. Unraveled rope transformed into hair and a beard for the nutcracker. (Photo courtesy of Cecile Wernau)

“It’s arranged to look like Clara’s and Fritz’ parlor on Christmas Eve,” Cecile said.

There is the holiday tree with presents beneath it, an antique sled, and a blue and white wooden rocking horse. The couple has joked about creating the Mouse King next — to offer Uncle Nut an equal opponent.

A resident of Naples for two decades, Hank retired from the state Department of Transportation a few years ago.

This October, the 66-year-old became completely occupied as he volunteered three days a week on the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge in Bridgton, began carving the pine logs for the gigantic nutcracker, and shored up his wintertime wood pile.

In November, the ribbon-cutting ceremony was fast approaching for the bridge named after Hank’s good friend.

TOUCH UP JOB — Hank Wernau’s niece, Bronwyn Tashoukos, of New York, uses a paintbrush to add embellishments to the nutcracker’s face. (Photo courtesy of Teresa Tashoukos)

Meanwhile, Hank was trying to comply with a personal deadline for the nutcracker project — so it would be assembled and ready for the more detailed painting job before his younger sister and her family arrived in Naples from New York for Thanksgiving.

Cecile explained that with their grandchildren now in their early to mid-20s, the couple enjoys the visits from their 7-year-old niece — an only child and budding artist.

“She’s the only young child in our life right now. We believe an important part of life is making memories,” she said, explaining why they saved the nutcracker’s face for the paint brushes of Bronwyn and her mom. “They did the embellishments.”

On Thanksgiving Day, a well-timed turkey dinner was ready the same time as Uncle Nut. So, family members turned their attention to placing the nutcracker in the yard. Using a handcart, the group surrounded the massive masterpiece and safeguarded it from taking a spill.

“Everyone was hanging on to it so it wouldn’t fall,” said Cecile, who admitted the nutcracker left things wide open for many humorous comments.

“We were hooting and hollering,” she said, “when someone made the comparison” between the thick wavy hair on Hank’s sister head and the nutcracker’s newly placed manly tresses.

Early on, Cecile had purchased some fake white fur, but the nutcracker couldn’t pull off the faux look. The day before Thanksgiving, Hank fetched an old rope

from the woodshed. That evening the group went to work, unraveling the rope. Ringlets of hemp transformed into the nutcracker’s beard and hair.

In late November, a dusting of snow kissed the nutcracker’s beard. The couple agreed they look forward to seeing how festive he’ll look after a white Christmas arrives.

“I am anxious to see some snow on him. I think that’d look nice,” Cecile said.

However, if the snow is bothersome to the nutcracker, it will require a ladder to remove the white stuff from their new friend’s shoulders.

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