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Christmas pyramids are multi-level wooden platforms with figures depicting either religious themes, such as the Nativity or angels, or secular life. They have a horizontal propeller at the top which spins around from heat emitted by candles lit at the base. The multiple levels also turn, like a carousel, so the various scenes are visible to all viewers. The pyramid height ranges from small enough for an indoor table to several feet for an outdoor display. Christmas pyramids started in the mining region of the Ore Mountains, or Erzgebirge, and have been part of Germany’s woodcarving history for centuries.
The Ore Mountains run along the border of Germany and the Czech Republic. Silver was discovered near the present day city of Freiberg in the 12th century. Tin ore followed, and iron and other ores were found over the next few centuries. Miners established settlements and villages along major the trade routes. Mining customs and traditions influenced all areas of daily life including folk art. When the industry declined during the 16th and 17th centuries, and silver prices dropped because of imported metals, the miners turned the hobby of woodcarving into an opportunity for earning extra money.
Much of the woodcarvings had to do with the importance of light. Miners carried lanterns with them to supply light while they worked underground. It was also important in the home during the dark days of winter, and was central to symbolizing hope and spiritual beliefs. The first Christmas pyramids were used in churches in the early 1800s as a way of expressing the light of Christmas.
Forerunners of Christmas pyramids existed in the 16th through 18th centuries. The 16th century had funeral trestles, used exclusively for funerals, and the 18th and 19th centuries had rods in the shape of pyramids with candles on them used throughout Germany as Christmas decorations. The inspiration for multiple platforms connected to a vertical center rod and turned by a heat driven propeller was closely associated to a mineshaft system with activity on different levels. The Christmas pyramids are not only part of Germany’s woodcarving history, they are also an inseparable part of the folk art history of the Ore Mountains.
The early 19th-century pyramids had oil lamps instead of candles. The oldest one was built around 1800 and is on display at the Ore Mountain Museum, or the Erzgebirgemuseum, in Annaberg-Buchholz, Germany. They were not used for Christmas celebrations in the home until the second half of the 19th century. Each one was unique to the family and was passed down through the generations. By the turn of the century, the pyramids had become so popular that hand carving them could not keep up with the demand.
Christmas pyramids were first massed produced in 1902. They, however, were and still are hand-painted. The large, outdoor pyramids towering several floors high in village squares and parks were first introduced in the 1933. They are a standard part of Christmas decorations in villages and towns in the Ore Mountain region.
Today, pyramids of all sizes are displayed during the Christmas season. The craft that began as a hobby and a secondary job for miners has produced many traditional holiday toys and decorations. The Christmas pyramids are a part of that tradition and contribute to the story of Germany’s woodcarving history.
By Cynthia Collins
Toy Museum of Seiffen – History
German Christmas Museum – Pyramids
Top photo credit: abejorro34, Creativecommons Flickr license
Photo of Ore Mountains: abejorro34, Creativecommons Flickr license