Germany Holidays: The real Santa’s workshop
Many a visitor to Germany will have come across its all-year-round Christmas shops, filled with painted wooden figures, but very few ever make it to the remote fold in the nation’s eastern hills where most of
these figures are made. This is Seiffen, a village in the Ore (Erzgebirge) Mountain range south of Dresden, where it lines the border with the Czech Republic.
Despite their name, these ‘mountains’ don’t get much higher than 500 metres, so the Ore is primarily farming and forestry country, dotted with barns and hamlets. Seiffen is one of its biggest settlements, and there are some 130 individual workshops here, most small, but a couple of them employing over 50 people. Instead of farming, Seiffen’s villagers spend their days sandpapering angel’s wings and putting the moustaches on wooden policemen. Nutcrackers are a local speciality, as are angels, pyramids, arches, and smoking men.
Amongst the community’s creations there’s one dominant figure, often dressed in red, who looks like a soldier, but is actually a miner in ceremonial dress. That’s because the former wealth of these hills is under the ground, and the carvers’ ancestors were originally carpenters in the local gold and silver mines. As the mining industry faded – Seiffen’s last closed in 1849 – these carpenters experimented with timber offcuts in their spare time. Back then, they were mainly for community gift-giving: a symbolic figure of a miner in ceremonial uniform traditionally celebrated the birth of a boy, a guardian angel celebrated a girl. These figures became so much part of local lore that they are even found decorating the interior of Seiffen’s very pretty pointy-hatted church.
Today, up to 800 different products are made locally, and a couple of big enterprises in town are obvious tourist attractions for visitors, offering workshop tours: they are Seiffener Volkskunst, at the entry to the village, and Richard Glässer on Haupstrasse, the biggest enterprise in town with 80 employees. Both have copious shops that are a twinkly treasury of fairy-lit carvings, and beyond Glässer’s retail section, a doorway leads into a workshop spread across three floors. Here a series of production lines of disembodied heads and torsos smelling of paint, glue and sawdust are carefully scrutinized by local ladies wielding fine-tipped paintbrushes.
The Seiffen best-sellers are the nutcrackers, actually miners in ceremonial costumes with lever-operated jaws; various styles of pyramid, rotating constructions topped with fans and with nativity figures below; and Schwibbogen candle-lit arches, most commonly seen as eyebrows of light in household windows all over Europe.
For an outsider, the output of this overgrown village may seem both expensive and un-Teutonically kitsch, but when you know the mining backstory, and how everything is still made by hand and not in China, it all begins to make sense.
Looking for more? See other destinations in Eastern Germany
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