The proud artisans of Seiffen gave the world the nutcracker and are determined to keep their centuries-old craft alive. The Christmas industry in the Ore Mountains of Germany has survived economic crises, wars, communism and a wave of Chinese replicas -- but is now at risk from a lack of young apprentices.
It is a cold, misty night and all is quiet in the village of Seiffen, tucked in a valley in the remote Ore Mountains, a former mining region in Saxony, southeastern Germany. The toymakers have put down their tools and are snoring in their beds. In dozens of workshops up and down the main street, neat ranks of nutcrackers, some finished, some still waiting to be painted or have their hats fitted, stand in the darkness.
If this were a Walt Disney film, they'd all come alive and start marching around now. It's not hard to imagine. After all, Seiffen has helped to cast a Christmas spell on homes around the world for the last 150 years.
The nutcracker was invented here around 1890. So was the "Räuchermann" or "Smoking Man," a wooden figure in various designs -- often a miner or a woodsman -- who billows incense through his mouth from a candle in his belly. The wooden rotating pyramid driven by the heat of candles also comes from here. So do intricately painted angels, snowmen and Santa Clauses. And the choirboys grouped around the distinctive round church modelled on the baroque one that stands on a little hill overlooking -- Seiffen.
This village, population 4,000, is the heart of the woodworking industry in the Ore Mountains, or Erzgebirge, which in Germany is synonymous with high quality Christmas woodcraft. Of the 2,000 artisans who make the famous figures in this region, around half live in and around Seiffen. It is a veritable cottage industry, ranging from backroom workshops to medium-sized companies employing over 100 people.
Craftsman Hermann Nestler, 74, works on his own and specializes in assembling decorative, wooden arches called "Schwibbögen" -- another typical ornament seen on window ledges around Germany at Christmas.
"I've fitted this light to illuminate the church clock," says Nestler, lifting a little replica of the Seiffen church fitted to the base of his arch and showing a tiny bulb attached to a stiff wire that reaches up to behind the semi-transparent clock face.
The craftsman looks a bit like a Räuchermann himself, with his beard and friendly, weather-beaten demeanor. He explains his products with quiet, contented pride.
"It's fun. I'm a pensioner and it gives me something to do," says Nestler in his showroom, surrounded by glass cases of illuminated arches that cost up to €290 ($377). But Nestler is starting to wind down his business. He produced 200 arches this year, a fraction of his peak output of 1,000 in 1998, and plans to make even fewer in 2013. "Next year, I'm just going to going to use up the materials I've got left," he says.
That's the main problem this industry faces. It has survived wars, economic crises and four decades of communist regulation. It's not even especially worried about cheap Chinese-made replicas flooding the world market -- the difference in quality is still glaringly obvious. But the aging artisans can't find enough young apprentices to replace them.
A Tough Nut to Crack