German Christmas Decorations from the Erzgebirge
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For Ulrike, a German living in England, Christmas just isn't Christmas without the evocative aroma of incense drifting up from the little wooden figure of a pipe smoker she keeps in the same room as the Christmas tree, a scent as rich as the warmth of Glühwein after returning home on a cold evening.
But there are other fascinating wooden ornaments and decorations that Ulrike brings out at Christmas, placing some on the dining-table, one or two in the window for passers-by to admire, and others stand on tables and mantelpieces, or, of course, hang from the branches of the tree. Where do they come from, and what is their history?
There are many Christmas markets, but only one village is known as the toy capital of Germany, and that is Seiffen, which has for centuries produced the most famous of the ornaments. Not many are used as toys today, but all have the power to delight young and old.
Seiffen is situated in the Erzgebirge, a heavily-wooded mountain range in Saxony, and is near the Czech border south of Leipzig and Dresden. The forests were so dense that the region was almost uninhabited until the 12th century, when silver was found near Freiberg. The word "Erz" in the region's name is the German word for "ore", and other metals were also worked. Glass was also produced from about 1200, as there was enough wood to provide the necessary heat. The glass makers were actually thought to be a cut above the miners socially.
But it was never an easy life, and the cold winters and the difficulties of cultivation in the forest meant that the people never got rich. And then, in the 17th century, the mines began to be worked out. Perhaps the people had always made little wooden ornaments, but their importance increased and in 1699 they took their wares to the Leipzig Christmas Fair for the first time. One hundred years later they were well-known for their excellent products. But it was in the 19th century that the main articles made today evolved.
Nutcrackers (Nußknacker) were among the earliest of the toys made, and their traditional styles of kings, hussars and other colourful soldiery take us instantly into Napoleonic times two hundred years ago.
Later the incense burners were developed (Räuchermänner), and to lend them authenticity Meerschaum-style pipes hang down from their gaping mouths.
Amongst the many figures featured on other ornaments are the miner and his guardian angel, who stands on his right. The miner wears, like many of the figures, a traditional costume, in this case usually the mining costume of the Freiberg region, with a characteristic "arse-apron" covering their rear, a piece of cloth protecting their clothes as they slid down the mine-shaft.
The toy-makers used other features from their own area. The conifers which provide the wood for the toys are always well represented, as are the local farm animals and wildlife. The most recognisable object is the church in Seiffen, an eighteenth century building which is not traditional in form, but instead octagonal. They also carve little figures of the choir-boys, known as the Kurrende, who go from house to house singing their carols.
Most of the production from Seiffen is of course Christmas items. Although many Easter decorations are made, nativity scenes are the most popular. There are two main ornamental designs: the Schwibbogen or arch, and the Pyramide, or pyramid.
The Schwibbogen represents light, so has candles or these days sometimes electric lighting. The arch is the entrance to the mine, down which the miners would spend the short winter days never seeing daylight. Christmas Day was an exception, and so they celebrated by decorating the mine entrance. The first Schwibbögen were actually made of metal in the eighteenth century.
The Pyramide is a much later invention, created for its clever effect. The basic pyramid shape is formed by an arch topped off by something resembling a helicopter rotor. The arch holds in place a vertical spindle attached to a revolving platform beneath. At each of the four corners of the pyramid is a candle, and when the candles are lit the rising air causes the rotor to turn gently, spinning the platform and its little figures.
Many of the figures on the decorations are made from a Reifen. Look this word up in a German dictionary and you will find it means tyre, which is the basic shape they start with. The method is local to the area and evolved from the glass makers, who made their moulds by turning circular pieces of wood on a lathe. The toy makers turn the wood to cut an outline of an animal shape around the whole wooden wheel. Each wooden animal is then "sliced" off the wheel and the finishing touches are done by hand using a knife.
A great deal of the work is done manually by craftsmen and women who train for three years. The lathe-turned parts are assembled and painted by hand. Some of the tree ornaments are turned, but others are carefully carved by chiselling a shaving of wood so thin it curls, turning the piece of wood to shape another and continuing until a perfectly regular little wooden tree appears.
In common with most producers these days, the toy-makers of Seiffen are facing competition from foreign makers who undercut them by using cheaper and less labour-intensive methods. There is no doubt though that there is no substitute for the real thing, and discerning buyers and collectors will always treasure the hand-made ornaments from Germany's toy capital of Seiffen in the Erzgebirge forests of Saxony.