Gazing at the shop windows that line the streets of Seiffen, you can’t help but suspect that Santa’s elves secretly do their holiday shopping here in the Ore Mountains, the cradle of Germany’s centuries-old Christmas handicraft tradition. Although many Americans don’t realize it, dozens of the Christmas traditions they cherish were first instituted in the towns and villages of this mountainous region, located just a few hours’ drive from either Munich or Prague.
For decades, this forested region on the border of what is now the Czech Republic was isolated behind the Iron Curtain. Although travel to Seiffen has increased since the fall of Communism, in 1989, the overcommercialization that has befallen many other scenic places in Europe has not occurred here.
A trip to the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge in German), especially for visitors interested in the region’s Christmas decorations, is best centered around Seiffen, home to more than 100 craft workshops and dozens of retail stores specializing in handmade nutcrackers, Nativity scenes, angels, and wooden figures.
Since the 18th century, talented Seiffen artisans have worked in small village shops (generally family-owned businesses), busily fashioning toys and holiday ornaments. The craftspeople in these workshops (Werkstatte) often specialize in crafting one particular type of ornament, such as candle arches, music boxes, or nutcrackers, using designs and techniques developed by their forebears. And unlike Santa’s secretive elves, quite a few of Seiffen’s workshops welcome onlookers and collectors – look for signs that read Schauwerkstatt (“demonstration workshop”) or Verkauf (“sale”), which indicate that the workshop sells directly to the public.
The most beloved craft found in the Ore Mountains is the nutcracker. Although these whimsical creations were first at German Christmas markets late in the 18th century, for Americans they are postwar phenomena. Americans first became conscious of the stately wooden soldiers when Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet The Nutcracker began to gain widespread popularity in the United States after it was first performed in the mid-1940s. Other ornaments created by the region’s artisans, including candlelit carousels (called Pyramide in German) and incense-burning pipe “smokers,” continue to gain popularity among American collectors, many of whom were introduced to the crafts by family members who had been stationed in Germany while serving in the military.
The region’s long mining history remains another folk art theme, one that finds expression in carefully crafted wooden miners and miners’ wives. Although the mines were depleted in the mid-19th century, for centuries the Ore Mountains were a rich source of silver and tin. It’s still quite common to find shops that carry colorful wooden depictions of miners in dress uniform – green cylindrical caps, black cutaway jackets, and white pants – carrying the tools of the trade, lanterns and hammers and chisels.
To fully appreciate how the region’s extensive mining culture could give rise to such a rich, grassroots artistic tradition, tour Seiffen’s Erzgebirgesches Spielzeugmuseum (Ore Mountain Toy Museum), home to one of Germany’s largest and most impressive folk art collections. A mile away, the Toy Museum also operates Erzgebirgesches Freilichtmuseum, an open-air museum that features nearly a dozen 18th- and 19th-century cottages, including a toymaker’s house and a miner’s residence. Carefully preserved and outfitted with period furnishings, the structures provide compelling glimpses of the simple lives once led by the people of the region. The open-air museum also features one of the country’s last water-turned lathes, dating from 1760. A woodworker is generally on hand to demonstrate how lathes were used to hand turn wood into traditional Ore Mountain toys like the nutcracker. If the weather is fair, join local villagers and head off on a hike along the well-tended footpaths that connect Seiffen to neighboring towns. In winter, when the paths become excellent cross-country skiing trails, ski gear can be rented from village shops and hotels.
Accommodations in the region are plentiful and many hotels have undergone full renovations in the past few years. Expect to pay somewhere between $70 and $100 for a double room with bath and breakfast. Although restaurant cuisine can prove lackluster, hotel breakfast buffets are wonders to behold, offering a wide variety of fresh rolls and breads, sliced meats, cheeses, soft-boiled eggs, yogurt, granola, and fresh fruit.
While English is not yet spoken widely in the Ore Mountains, Americans will find the region’s inhabitants friendly and accommodating. Indeed, most townspeople will go out of their way to help visitors create memories as precious as the treasures they inevitably bring home.