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.
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.