I am one of those who believe one can never have too many Christmas ornaments. So when I heard about Seiffen, Germany, a town where Christmas decorations are never tucked away, it only made sense to hitch a ride with Santa to check out the dozens of shops that specialize in handcrafted wooden decorations.
Even with my enthusiasm for holiday cheer, I found that walking through just one shop with shelves and shelves of artfully arranged and lit “buy me now” decorations was overwhelming. Walking through a town where about 50 of such stores lined the mile-long main street and spilled into the side roads was simply mind-boggling.
Throughout Seiffen, life-size nutcrackers guard store entrances and perch on balconies. From shop windows, rotund Santas, beguiling angels, self-important nutcrackers, jolly snowmen, tiny trees, elegant candle arches, carved figures and imposing pyramids beckon the buyer. As impressive as the sheer volume was the fact that each of these items was carefully handcrafted through every step of the process: Cutting, sawing, turning and sanding wood; gluing pieces together; painting.
In Your Bucket Because…
- There is no other place in Germany that has so many shops selling finely handcrafted Christmas ornaments.
- You appreciate the fine craftsmanship of talented artisans.
- The opportunity to explore a beautiful, less-visited part of the former East Germany.
- Good for: Families, people who love Christmas, collectors of Christmas ornaments.
A Tradition of Hand-Crafted Christmas Ornaments
Seiffen is the heart of Erzgebirge, Germany’s “Christmas Land.” Located in eastern Germany, this area has a centuries-long tradition of fine wood crafting, including toys.
The Ore Mountains, as the area is also called, take their name from the 16th-century discovery of large deposits of cobalt, tin, iron, lead and silver, a discovery that transformed villages into prosperous towns.
The miners, who rarely saw the light of day, crafted items from wood to supplement their salaries. As the ore deposits dwindled, the woodcarving became their main source of income.
Thus, mining history is the base of many of the most popular Christmas motifs. For example, an angel with a lantern represents the miner’s wife holding candles to light her husband’s way home.
The Heritage Behind Erzgebirge’s Well-Known Designs
Overwhelemed or not, once I learned that the most distinctive items have historic significance and reflect a tradition of woodcarving craftsmanship, I switched from my dazed state into shopping mode.
Nutcrackers: The nutcracker is the best-known German Christmas decoration. The most traditional ones are images of authority — kings, soldiers, gendarmes — figures upon whom the welfare of the miners and their families depended. As a bit of mild protest, the craftsmen gave the figures rather grim faces, reflecting their power.
Depending upon the intricacy of the design, crafting a nutcracker can take up to a hundred different working steps. Once the many wood pieces are assembled, artisans paint the nutcrackers with many layers of bright, shining colors.
This time-consuming workmanship is what separates Erzgebirge’s nutcrackers and other decorations from the cheap imitations found in our big-box stores. Sure, the German prices are much higher. Expect to pay around $125 for a 15-inch-tall nutcracker. But the price also includes an honored heritage and meticulous handwork. You don’t get either of those in a mass-produced knock-off made in a country that may not even have Christmas traditions.
The smoking man: The Räuchermann, “the smoking man,” is a carved and painted figure. His body is split horizontally so that a small cone of incense can be inserted and lit. The top part of the body goes back on, and the smoke soon drifts from his long pipe, lending a room a distinctive, pleasant aroma.
In contrast to the nutcracker, the original Räuchermann was an everyday person, dressed in simple clothing. Now the choices of smoker designs are many: Santas, teachers, chemists, doctors, priests, shepherds, chimney sweeps.
Since this was my introduction to a smoking man, of course I had to bring one (about $70) home…along with an extra box of incense cone.
Candle arches: Candle arches take their design from an old mining tradition. On the last shift before Christmas, the miners hung their pit lamps in a semicircle on the pit entry hall.
Candleholders or tiny electric candles stand atop the arch, which frames a scene, most of them religious. Seiffen’s lovely octagonal church is a popular motif. A candle arch with four carved figures is around $50. Ones with electric candles cost more.
Instead of bright paints, various types of wood give coloration to the candle arches. Delicate touches of black paint are used on faces and building details.
Pyramids: These are not triangular. Christmas pyramids are circular, rotating decorations. They have one to six tiers and range in height from a few inches to several feet. The best of them stand at the pinnacle of Erzgebirge craftsmanship.
The miners used the horse driven rotating mechanism that hoisted the ore to the surface as the basis for the pyramid design.
The distinctive impeller, with its thin fan-like blades, tops every pyramid. A thin rod running from the top of the impeller to the base of the pyramid enables the pyramid to rotate. Rising candle heat turned the impeller in the early designs. Now most are electrically powered.
Carved figures and electric candles stand on each tier of the pyramid. The figures may be religious or people from everyday life. Some pyramids have a nature theme.
Single tier pyramids with a few figures run around $50. Ones with three tiers can be found for about $100.
Height is not the only determinant of a pyramid’s price. The intricacy of the carved figures is also a crucial factor. The most elaborate pyramid I saw was over six-feet tall, with very intricately carved and delicately painted figures. Each tier had curling trees, animals and village people at their everyday chores–chopping wood, carrying logs, and pushing wheelbarrows. Elaborately carved railings encircled each tier, and the impeller sat atop an elegant dome, making a true work of art. Prices for ones of this exceptional caliber run into thousands of dollars.
It is hard, very hard, to make choices from the abundant array of small and colorful decorations. They are easy to pack and make great gifts (if you can part with them). There are plenty of adorable small items for $10. Uniquely-styled collectibles, made in small batches, cost upwards of $35.
No way could I resist the appealing curling trees, especially the very small ones. They are exceeding tricky to make. A cone of wood is held in a vise. Then the craftsperson uses
a small knife to push the chips of wood forward into a straight line, turning the wood as each row is completed.
You have to smile when you see the skiing Santas, snowboarding Santas, and motorcycling Santas. Scarved snowmen ski and skate — or hold tiny snow babies. Angels abound. Kids love the tiny trains.
Traditional, Yet Modern
Younger craftspeople have blended traditional handwork with more modern designs. Finely crafted Santas are simple and sleek. Skiing, playing a saxophone or hanging out with an equally sleek moose, they make you smile.
Instead of dutifully holding lanterns for their miner husbands, a band of definitely untraditional angels have a minimalist modern edge, even a touch of sensuality.
If you are Scrooge enough to think that you have enough Christmas decorations, then consider the arks, bridal parties, Easter decorations, carved figures of a camera-totting tourist, a kilted Scotsman brightly dressed little ladies holding spring blossoms. Music boxes have decorations and tunes for all seasons.
When in doubt — buy more. I only regret what I did not buy. And if you think you don’t have room for any more Christmas decorations…buy a shelf.
- Don’t miss Seiffen’s Spielzeugmuseum (Toy Museum). It has a remarkable collection of Erzgebirge’s finest woodcarvings. The animals boarding Noah’s ark are arranged by size, from flies to elephants. The stunning Christmas pyramid is two stories high.
- On Advent Sundays, carolers carrying the traditional lanterns and stars go from house to house, wishing residents a Merry Christmas.
- However, Seiffen is very crowded in December. Make your reservations far in advance if you plan to visit during the Christmas season.
- On the third weekend in October, there is a “Day of Traditional Crafts” when many of the workshops are open to public view. Other times, you may find a few workshops open for viewing.