Strolling across Christmas markets in Germany, shoppers will find unique wooden items such as nutcrackers, Christmas pyramids, angels and other figures. The origin of these holiday items goes back to the 17th century in the Erzgebirge, a mountain area near the Czech border.
After ore became scarce, many miners were forced to do something else, so they began turning everyday items into little toy figures for their children, which eventually led to an entire new industry.
The miners created different figures as an artistic expression of their interests and political concerns. One of the first items created was a wooden figure of a miner smoking his pipe called “Räuchermännchen,” or smoking man. To express their longing for daylight after working years in the mountain, they also produced light angels. With the creation of mean-looking nutcrackers, they intended to insult the magistracy (government). Former miners also produced wooden policemen, foresters, soldiers and high authorities with scowling faces – that was their way of insulting the government and showing them that they were treating the miners unjustly.
In 1699, a wood craftsman from the town of Seiffen, which is located in the Erzgebirge, transported his homemade products on a wheelbarrow to the fair in Leipzig.
Commercial relations were established, especially with the town of Nuremberg. That’s how the manufacturing of these unique toys started.
Since the standard of living was quite low in the Erzgebirge, the products were sold at cheap prices and thus faced little competition.
Eventually, the former ore-mining town of Seiffen turned into the European center of toy production with exports to the United States starting in 1784. The most popular item that was exported to the states was “Noah’s ark.” The little animals were made with a special technique – wheel turning.
Craftsmen prepared wooden wheels and cut the figures out, a technique still alive today in Seiffen, the town of toys.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the production of miniature toy figures became more and more popular. By 1890, customs were charged according to weight and not to the value of the products in exporting to other countries.
This made it more expensive to export big toys. At the same time, wood prices increased.
Nowadays, the Erzgebirge region is well known for traditional Christmas symbols – miners carrying lights, angels, nutcrackers, nativity scenes, Christmas pyramids and wooden archs.
The mining, longing for light, joy of celebrating Christmas and the love of the miners for their children were the predominant reasons for this specific type of toy production.