Many of the stereotypical German qualities are born from a certain level of conservatism and a love for the status quo. Yet innovative ideas are just as German, embracing change and making the most of it, with dedication and an eye for detail. To experience this first hand, a trip to the idyllic Ore Mountains, the Erzgebirge in the Eastern state of Saxony, is a great idea. Bring your inner child, because what you find here are toys that made our grandparents happy and see a huge revival in times of ecological conscience and the search for holistic experiences.
The Ore Mountains are a dreamy region full of nature, forest, mountains, clean air and idyllic villages. The area shares history with the English North, having been a major mining location in the past, explaining its name. The Ore Mountains missed the industrial revolution by some decades: The mines closed down in the 19th century already, leaving the local community out of jobs.
But not for long. While the land around the Ore Mountain makes for poor agriculture, there’s plenty of woodland. Wooden toy-making was the answer to poverty and unemployment – with the side effect that the workforce changed its character as well. While ore mining is brutal work done best by young and strong men, carving wood is easily done by people of all ages. This lead to whole families working to make toys, often 12 hours a day, with child labour being a normal occurrence.
Today, children are not involved in the toy manufacturing anymore. They are also not the only users of the toys, once produced. Many of the well-crafted, wooden, highly original items are collectables, beautiful souvenirs or simply end up as dust catchers in many a home, far beyond the German borders.
Probably the most famous of these is the Nutcracker, German “Nussknacker”, whose legend has been set in stone by the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky with the ballet of the same name. Interestingly, at the time of first presentation, the ballet wasn’t nearly as successful as the story it’s based on: E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”. Today, it’s a Christmassy tradition all around the world, as are the wooden nutcrackers themselves.
The Nutcracker as an iconic piece of German popular art has its historic roots in Berchtesgaden deep in the Bavarian Alps, where around 1650 the first figurines were produced. Legend has it that those were actually ableto open nuts, while their modern counterparts are rather decorative than useful. In the 19th century, the Ore Mountains took possession of the Nutcracker and made it a worldwide trend – including grim faces and outfit that are part of the iconic appearance. The Nutcrackers are resembling uniforms and attitude of German authorities, mostly soldiers in traditional Hussar uniforms, but also gendarmes or forest officials. In modern times, forms have become more various. You can, for example, buy a proper Uncle Sam nutcracker in the colours of the American flag. Santa Claus nutcrackers that you might come along in some shops should be avoided, though, if you are looking for an authentic German souvenir.
An average Nutcracker of 35cm height is manufactured in 130 different steps and has up to 60 different parts. It’s made of spruce and beech wood, mixed with fur, bristles, leather, cloth and all kinds of bright paint.
The worldwide largest nutcracker can be found in front of the “Nutcracker Museum” in Neuhausen in the Ore Mountains, not far from Seiffen. The museum is worth a visit as well, if you ever make it to Saxony. Not the biggest attraction in the region: In Altenberg you can visit an original ore mine, closed down 200 years ago and still open for the public. If you like castles, you are in the luck. There are plenty, and most of them are home to museums and interesting collections. Wildeck Castle even houses a motorcycle museum, however weird that might sound in a medieval fortress. And of course there is nature: While most of the Ore Mountain region is stunningly beautiful, you might want to pay a visit to the “Scheibenberg” (table mountain) and its exposed basalt columns, called “Orgelpfeifen” (organ pipes).
Christmas Land – where German elves work
The bond between Christmas and wooden toys is so strong that the Ore Mountains are also referred to as “German Christmas Land”: The place, where elves build toys for Santa Claus, who in Germany is knows as “Weihnachtsmann”, a name he kept even in socialist times, when Christmas Angels were rebranded “Jahresendfigur mit Flügeln” (year-end figure featuring wings).
The centre of this magical land is the town Seiffen, where wood workers developed a technique so unique that there isn’t an English term for it. “Reifendrehen” translates to “hoop turning”, not to be confused with “wood turning”, which is also a popular technique*. A specially designed wood lathe is used to create wooden rings, which are then further sawed and carved to create figures that are painted further on. Developed at the beginning of the 19th century, Reifendrehen made mass production possible that pure hand-carving could not have achieved.
The new technology gave birth to a great variety of wooden products, many of whom made a comeback in children’s rooms, helping parents who are looking for authentic toys made of natural products, giving kids real life experiences while avoiding the health risks of cheap plastic products. While some of this notion might be pretentious, the toys are still beautiful.
And so are the classical decorative gadgets of the Ore Mountain folk art, a well-known example being the “Räuchermännchen”. You will find these quirky incense burners in most German households (including my own, although I couldn’t find it just now when I thought it should really be on my desk while writing this article). The people of the Erzgebirge celebrate their famous product with an own song in local Mundart (dialect): Wenn es Raachermannel naabelt (when the smoking man spreads fog)
What you won’t find in my house is a Christmas pyramid, a traditional gadget that I connect with the generation of my grandmother. Of course, the tradition goes back much further in history, back to medieval times. Christmas Pyramids created in the Ore Mountains are detailed miniature displays, often nativity scenes, mounted on a round wooden frame, topped up with a rotor, driven by hot air from candles on the outer frame. While most of these pyramids are table-top sized, some of them are big enough to replace a Christmas tree, or are even decorating gardens and public spaces.
With all this talk about the general Germanness of the Erzgebirge, it’s easy to forget that the mountain range is actually not in the centre of the country, but actually a border in itself. The toy town Seiffen is also a border town with as much as four crossings into Czechia. From a tourist’s point of view, this is lovely. From Seiffen to Prague it’s a short car trip of less than two hours – or, of course, in the other directions. If you ever visit the Czech capital, don’t miss out on the attractions of the German Erzgebirge.
*Wood turning at the Chemnitz Christmas Market 2017