• Germany's news in English
 

Saxony’s Christmas woodcarving tradition

Published: 20 Dec 2011 06:48 GMT+01:00

Tall wooden towers crowned with rotating propellers turned by the hot air rising from candles are a key fixture at Germany’s many Christmas markets.

Known as “pyramids,” the carefully carved constructions are the most fanciful expression of the holiday handicraft tradition from the Erzgebirge region in the eastern state of Saxony.

The larger-than-life displays and hand-carved figures like nutcrackers and candle-laden arches trace their origins to the Erzgebirge’s long mining history in the surrounding ore-rich mountains along the Czech border. The now-booming Christmas trade began back in the 1800s, deriving from humble beginnings as a creative outlet and representation of the local miners’ particular penchant for light.

From mining to woodcarving

“For the miner, the light stood simultaneously for his piety – and for the happiness and confidence resulting from coming out of the mine healthy after completed work. During the 19th century, many Erzgebirge residents increasingly decorated their parlours with self-made Christmas lanterns and self-made Christmas pyramids,” Konrad Auerbach, director of the Seiffen Toy Museum, told The Local in an email.

Yet as early as the 17th century, miner figures made of metal were used in Erzgebirge churches to hold the altar candles. Hand-carved wooden miners for private use followed.

“Soon there were carved mining people and light-carrying angels in many homes, and the little pipe-smoking men and the nutcracker belonged to typical Christmas decorations,” Auerbach said.

The wooden Christmas figures are known not only for their traditional characteristics – including hand painting, carved flowers and spanned arches – but also for the special techniques used in their production.

For example, woodturning, a special process during which multiple figures were sliced from a carefully carved wooden ring, was developed around 1800 and increased manufacture productivity while resulting in a certain charm.

Preserving this tradition, Seiffen, an Erzgebirge town considered the central hub of the wooden products manufacture, now christens itself “toy village.” The Seiffen Toy Museum and Open Air Museum hosts a collection of the traditional woodwork as well as offers guests opportunity to see the historical production techniques in action, such as woodturning.

Developing tradition

Although the mining profession died off in the region as ore deposits dwindled, the miner remained a central and beloved figure in the emerging woodwork market.

Around 1830, wood carvers also began woodturning angels, another prominent Christmas figure. The angels were cut from large wooden rings, fitted with wings and a candle holder. Later, the angelic figures were customized with constricted waists, flower ornaments and other decorations that are still common characteristics today.

“Sometimes the light-carrying angel would be set next to a matching light-carrying miner – as a pair, similar to wife and husband. Both figures simultaneously portray Erzgebirge history and Christmas customs,” Auerbach explained.

While the Erzgebirge wooden toys and decorations remain steeped in centuries-old tradition, workshops in the region have also developed modern interpretations to reflect changing lifestyles, sometimes by experimenting with new materials. The Association for Erzgebirge Craftsmen and Toy Makers, a group dedicated to preserving the traditional woodwork, ranks the most popular trends each year.

“Like all things in life, the Erzgebirge wooden handwork has also evolved. That we have countless modern, contemporary products is reflected in the pyramids and figures that have been developed to represent the times. But there are still the traditional elements that are wished for, above all at Christmas,” Dieter Uhlmann, director of the association, told The Local.

Question of Authenticity

In the Erzgebirge – the heart of Germany’s Christmas country – countless workshops continue to turn out the wooden toys, pyramids and arched bows, completing the meticulous handwork for worldwide sales. However, Uhlmann cautioned buyers wanting to add a touch of German cheer to their own holiday decorations.

“Everything that is good is copied,” he said. “Make sure that the origin from the Erzgebirge is proven.”

Many sellers hawking the wooden wares at the Christmas markets have signs declaring their products’ authenticity, while other wooden figures come with tags bearing typical Erzgebirge symbols.

But low-quality, mass-produced wooden figures, ornaments and decorations imported from overseas factories are also prevalent throughout Germany.

“Unfortunately it’s the case nowadays that many of the things that one can buy do not come from the Erzgebirge but rather from China,” said Christoph Felchow, a furniture restorer born in Lichtenstein, a small town at the foot of the Erzgebirge.

Felchow, however, has a second way of guaranteeing the product’s authenticity: He made many of the wooden Christmas decorations – including an ornate multi-level pyramid – on display in his family’s living room himself.

Your comments about this article

22:26 December 20, 2011 by Don L
I enjoyed reading about the Erzgerbige "holzschnitt" and mining traditions. My relatives live in that area, actually in the Vogtland area of Saxony. I have many pyramids and angel bands from the DDR times which they sent me. I always enjoy visiting one of the Erzgebirge Kunstgewerbe shops when I visit there.
08:32 December 22, 2011 by heyheyhey
How wonderful for you, Don L

There is NOTHING in the world as magical as the beautiful handmade items from Germany. You are blessed to have these Christmas treasures.

Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones, at home, and in Germany.
Today's headlines
'Blackfacing' is Anglicism of the Year
They may be collecting for charity, but this is not really OK. Photo: DPA

'Blackfacing' is Anglicism of the Year

"Blackfacing", used by Germans to describe white people painting their skin dark to mimic black people, has been named Anglicism of the Year by a jury of linguists. READ  

Cocaine-cop trial shakes Bavarian Alps
File photo: DPA

Cocaine-cop trial shakes Bavarian Alps

For 20 years no-one noticed that the head of the drug squad in Kempten, Bavaria, was on a personal rampage of narcotics- and domestic abuse - until his wife shopped him for the €250,000 brick of cocaine he had stashed. But the local population isn't buying the story. READ  

Merkel wishes Tsipras 'strength and success'
Photo: DPA

Merkel wishes Tsipras 'strength and success'

Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Greece's new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Tuesday and wished him "much strength and success" after his anti-austerity party's election victory. READ  

Refugees suffer over 200 attacks in 2014
Swastika graffiti at a refugee home in Bavaria with text reading "No asylum seekers". Photo: DPA

Refugees suffer over 200 attacks in 2014

Refugee NGOs' first annual report on violence against asylum seekers found that there were over 200 attacks on people and accommodation in 2014. READ  

'No German identity without Auschwitz'
President Gauck addressing the Bundestag on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Photo: DPA

'No German identity without Auschwitz'

President Joachim Gauck on Tuesday warned Germans against drawing a line under the Holocaust as the Bundestag (parliament) opened a day of commemorations on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. READ  

Handball! Neuer blows whistle on wax double
Manuel Neuer at the inauguration of his double in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Handball! Neuer blows whistle on wax double

Madame Tussauds' hottest new effigy was unveiled to the public in Berlin on Tuesday, costing a euro for each of the 150,000 hairs on keeper Manuel Neuer's head. Pity about the handball goal frame though… READ  

Railway union threatens strike over €2
EVG members outside a station during a 2013 strike. Photo: DPA

Railway union threatens strike over €2

As railway operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) continues negotiations with train drivers' union GDL, its other major union EVG has threatened a strike over pay differences between employees. READ  

Dresden tolerance concert draws 22,000
Photo: DPA

Dresden tolerance concert draws 22,000

As Pegida supporters and opponents clashed in Hanover, musicians threw a free concert in central Dresden on Monday evening to show another side to the city famous for spawning the anti-Islam movement. READ  

Germany remembers horror of Auschwitz
"Work will set you free," the gate at Auschwitz-Birkenau tells inmates. Photo: DPA

Germany remembers horror of Auschwitz

Chancellor Angela Merkel joined survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Berlin on Monday to open a series of events dedicated to the end of the Holocaust camp regime 70 years ago. READ  

JobTalk Germany: Entrepreneur series
'Work I love and a rewarding family life'
Working mum photo: Shutterstock

'Work I love and a rewarding family life'

Melanie Fieseler is a British business/career consultant and coach, and founder of Berlin-based WorkSmart. She is on a mission to help ambitious mums like herself successfully combine motherhood with building a fulfilling and rewarding career or business. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Gallery
The best regional foods TTIP opponents want to protect
Photo: DPA
Features
The rise and spread of Pegida
Photo: Shutterstock
Culture
This cosplayer did not think his plan through
National
Europe in statistics - from Spain to Sweden
Photo: DPA
Politics
The Local's report from Pegida's largest ever demonstration.
Sponsored Article
Top-notch tech boosts bilingual schools
National
Six stories that will rock Germany this year
Photo: DPA
National
Terror alert at a new high. Should you be worried?
Dresden skyline and river by night. Photo: DPA
Politics
What does Dresden have against Muslims?
Photo: DPA
National
What were your favourite news stories of 2014?
Gallery
Top 12 German idioms
National
Why has The Local got a new logo?
Photo: DPA
National
This German was abducted and tortured by the CIA
Culture
10 top tips for partying in Germany
Photo: DPA
Technology
What does the Chancellor see as the future of the internet?
Photo: DPA
Berlin
The Local's series on 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

1,806
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd