When the silver and tin mines of the Erzgebirge, Germany’s Ore Mountain Region of Saxony, began to dry up in the late 1700s, village miners were at a loss to survive. Because lumber was plentiful, they turned to woodcarving and eventually founded a toymaking and national Christmas tradition. Artisans specialized in colorfully attired figures used as candleholders, Nutcrackers, and decorative “Smoking Men.” Each of these figures is an endearing piece of what later became the world’s idea of “German Christmas.”
For the families in the village workshops, the children and adults who sat long hours at benches doing the repetitive work of carving, painting, and assembling, the figures represented the traditional occupations of their neighbors: the forester and hunter who, heading out into the woods, greeted them by name; the itinerant peddlers who brought news and excitement along with goods from neighboring towns; even the poor wood gatherers in the village, who spent the light hours finding and selling firewood for a pittance.
Of course, the most honored was the hardworking miner, who, clothed in his traditional work habit, headed down into the seams in the dark and returned in the dark. The villages of the Erzgebirge were first and foremost mining villages, and the miners were the principal actors in this demanding and dirty work.
The Erzgebirge was a hardscrabble landscape, and 800 years of continuous mining and smelting did not mean that each year was equally productive. As seams were mined out, the surrounding villages became poorer. Mining itself was a strenuous and dangerous profession, demanding workers who were young and strong. In the winter months, it was frequently too cold and wet to work the seams.
The villagers retrained themselves to generate income for their families. Using timber from the nearby forests once destined for the mineshafts and the tools in their shops, unemployed miners carved wooden house utensils and small toys. Lathe-turners produced bowls, plates, and other wares to sell. But while the production of toys and Christmas decorations brought in some income, the earnings were not sizeable. Because of the seclusion of the villages and their low living standards, the peddlers who crisscrossed this mountainous region paid little for the wares made in the Erzgebirge workshops. They then sold these products in the more cosmopolitan markets of Leipzig and Nuremberg for a high return.
Through innovations in Reifendrehen, or “wheel-turning,” lathe-turners in villages such as Seiffen developed assembly-line production for home decorations and toys. Individual households enlisted the whole family, forming a production line for turning, detail carving, painting, and then assembling the figures. By transferring the knowledge and skills used in mining and woodcarving into the new career path of toymaker, artisans began to compete in the country’s greater marketplace. Erzgebirge became known as Germany’s “Seifferner Toy Corner.”
The folk art of the Erzgebirge is stilled characterized by traditional production methods. Today, the small, colorful figures are often assembled into intricate settings to illustrate the lore and lifestyles of the villages, stories of their Christian faith, and experiences in the mines. It is the improbable combination of Christmas and mining iconography which continues to characterize the distinctive folk art of the Erzgebirge.
The miner is generally dressed in his miner’s habit and armed with the tools of the trade, usually a hammer and pick chisel. Generally, miners of the nineteenth century wore leather patches on their rumps and knees and a protective hood to cover their necks and shoulders. These historical habits were captured in a publication of copper plates published in 1831 in Saxony, still consulted in the design of the Erzgebirge figures of today.
Although Nutcrackers in various forms were known throughout Europe, Erzgebirge lathe-turners recognized them as an easy addition to their existing inventory and began production of the figures around 1850. They painted them in the dress of their social station as miners, soldiers, and the popular figure of the king. The Nutcracker now counts as one of the Erzgebirge traditional figures, a reputation acquired more because of their pioneering production process than through the origins of the figure itself.
In contrast to the Nutcracker, the figure of the Smoking Man (Räuchermann) did indeed originate in the workshops of the Erzgebirge. First mentioned in 1830, this decorative incense burner has become a staple in German Christmas decorations. The hollowed-out belly of the turned figure holds a lighted incense cone, allowing smoke to come out the figure’s mouth. Smoking Men frequently represent those who peopled the villages of the Erzgebirge. The forester and hunter were local professionals who oversaw and sustainably managed forests. Usually dressed in green with a tufted hat, they carry the tools of their profession: saw, gun, broom, backpack, dead goose, hunting horn, binoculars. A third figure in this group is the wood-gatherer, with a backpack and bundle of wood. Because of his occupation, he would have belonged to some of the poorest families of the village. Figure by figure, the artisans of yesterday represented the citizens of their home communities.
A different sort of decoration is the wooden candle arch (Schwibbogen), a rounded candleholder for use in the celebration of the Christmas Mass, originally fashioned by the blacksmiths who worked in the mines. It is also thought that the shape of the arch represents the cave mouths of the mines. The mass was scheduled in the early morning hours of Christmas Day, following the last shift on Christmas Eve. But by then, not only would the miners coming off their shift have started their celebratory drinking, but their families would have as well. In other words, few in the congregation were in the mood for solemn contemplative worship. Over time, the Christmas Mass was moved to the colliery itself and became the Bergmette, and the miners took their Schwibbogen and festivities with them. Today, nothing is left of the liturgical origins of this custom except the name.
Candle pyramids are another popular Christmas handiwork made in the Erzgebirge workshops. Artisans fashion an outer frame in the shape of a pyramid and construct candle holders at each corner, then they encase a central turning axis, attaching one or more tiers. At the top of the axis, they place a rotor with blades. W the candles at the base are lit, the warm air rises to turn the blades. These expensive pyramids have become a standard Christmas item, with the tiers decorated with different scenes. Many pyramids tell the story of the nativity with the stable, angels, wise men, and shepherds all turning round and round toward Bethlehem.
Newer models display the work of the miners, the different levels visibly illustrating the labor involved in bringing ore to the surface. Pyramids were well-suited to the production methods of the Erzgebirge, where lots of small figures were produced en masse, painted, and then glued into these complex story models. Figures are still sold individually, but through tiered pricing, these adaptable displays fit the space, taste, and pocketbook of many customers.
The designation of Wooden Toy Maker (Holzspielzeugmacher) is now a profession listed in the national Crafts and Trade Code (Handwerksordnung). The career-specific schooling currently takes place at the vocational school in Seiffen, Erzgebirge, the Holzspielzeugmacher- und Drechslerschule. As part of a three-year curriculum, students receive instruction in drawing, product design, and all other aspects of wooden toymaking. They are also trained in the modern tools of computer-aided design and computer numerical control. The final year is spent in a hands-on apprenticeship at one of the workshops. Specialization is still the rule for students; each chooses a concentration as they move forward but will graduate with all the skills necessary to start their own shop.
The maintenance of a high standard for Erzgebirge folk art remains a concern for professionals in the craft. In 1990, a group created the Association of Erzgebirge Craftsmen and Toy Manufacturers (Verband Erzgebirgischer Kunsthandwerker und Spielzeughersteller) which monitors an adherence to the traditional form and quality of the finished product. Founded in 1919, and composed of lathe-turners and toymakers, the cooperative Dregeno serves as a worldwide sales platform in promoting the traditional products of the region.
The Erzgebirge is no longer a hardscrabble landscape struggling with mine closures and poverty. Now it is a region of a united Germany with a strong economy and a prosperous citizenry. In their workshops, the wooden toymakers who helped build the region’s success, as well as warm memories of Christmas, continue to nurture the cultural memory of the Erzgebirge and the miners, and mining communities that subsisted here for centuries.
Charleen Smith-Riedel is a volunteer in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Having retired from the tech industry in Seattle, she has picked up on her dated folklore studies, completed at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and is committed to writing on folklife topics for Wikipedia.