"Everything comes from the mining" goes the saying in the Erzgebirge mountains. That applies to Christmas/Advent customs, too. Many towns in the Erzgebirge know the tradition of a miners parade on one of the Advent weekends. The most famous parades are in Annaberg-Buchholz, Freiberg and Schwarzenberg.
Seiffen has a small parade the first Advent and a bigger one with about 400 participants on the third Advent. Mining in the Erzgebirge is over since the early 20th century (but may live up again in the near future!) but countless clubs/associations keep up the traditions.
For the parade the people dress up in miners uniform and march (playing brass music) down the main street to the town hall where they gather, the brass bands play and everyone sings the old songs. A few short speeches are given and that's it. Traditionally the parade is finished with the "Steiger" song - gives me goose bumps every time.
I've been twice to the Seiffen parade so far. I just love it, will go back. The special thing about this parade is that it is relatively small and thus has an ambience of a big family gathering, takes place in late afternoon (darkness, unlike Annaberg's parade) and there are also kids choirs involved (the Kurrende).
This candle holder is a very typical Ore Mountains product. Such candle holders are used instead of Advent Wreaths. On the first Sunday in Advent one candle is put on it and lit, on the second Advent Sunday two, etc.
Adventsleuchter are hardly known outside the region. Unlike most other types of Erzgebirge woodcarvings these have not yet invaded the stalls on Christmas markets all over the country. I bought this one in Seiffen.
Mine is the plain version, there are also varieties with little figures of angels, Kurrende singers etc. in the middle. All of them, however, have the golden star in the centre.
To make them look more festive they can be set on a pretty plate and decorated with fir twigs. Next year I will do that with mine for sure.
The Christmas market in Seiffen consists of little wooden huts that are shattered along the main street, in the square in front of the town hall, and some other spots. The market is open during Advent season but officially terminates on the 4th Advent Sunday. I visited on Monday after and found that about half of the stalls were still kept open.
However, the market is an addition to Advent atmosphere but if you plan to shop for Christmas items you don't need it. The whole village is a Christmas market, with all those shops selling Christmas items all year round. On the other hand, having a Glühwein, pastry or a grilled Thüringer in between shopping is a pleasant intermission.
Seiffen's so characteristic village church has become a popular model among woodcarvers. The little octagonal church shows up in lots of Christmas decorations, Schwibbogen, candle holders etc. etc. Its polygonal shape makes it suitable for pyramids, too - just like Dresden's Frauenkirche which is also often depicted.
A speciality of Seiffen: little toys and scenes that fit into a matchbox. These were invented around 1900 when not only the price for wood rose but also the custom fees which were calculated by weight. Lightweight miniatures solved the problem.
The best seller is the "smallest village in the world" - Seiffen church, two houses and a tree.
Kurrende singing (from Latin currere, to run) is really done in Saxony, small groups of singers in black robes with a white collar sing in the streets of the towns and villages.
Since the 1930s little woodcarved groups of Kurrende singers have become popular. They appear in Schwibbögen, pyramids etc. often combined with a church. Groups of 3, 5 or 7 little wooden singer figures are also on sale; it's always an odd number with one of them holding a star while the others have a hymn book.
Traditional nutcrackers are toy soldiers in colourful uniforms. However, there are many more varieties, for example representants of various professions, even teddy bears and Father Christmasses. Imagination has no limits.
A nutcracker cracks nuts with his mouth: a lever in the back moves the chin. Not all are strong enough to really crack nuts open, though... They are more decoration than tools.
The Schwibbogen - actually an architectural term - is a semi-circular arch which carries a row of either candles or electric lights. The field underneath the arch is filled with scenes. Those with electric lights are usually put up in the windows.
The version with two standing miners and husband and wife working (photo 1) is a traditional picture in the Ore Mountains. Those can also be made from metal.
Wooden ones have a wide variety of figures and scenes - religious scenes, mining scenes, figures, villages (Seiffen in photo 3), Kurrende singers (photo 4), Father Christmas or whatever.
Others have jigsaw pictures which are illuminated from behind. However, lately cheaop factory versions have come up which are not made by hand and with a jigsaw but stamped out by a machine. They look nice at first sight but cannot be considered authentic handicraft.
The mining tradition of the Ore Mountains lives on in the pair of figures which is usually put up as candle holders: angel and miner. You can buy single figures but actually they should be a pair. They either hold a real candle in each hand, but there are also versions with electric lights.
Rumours tell that in DDR times the figure of the angel was not wanted by officials because it was too religious but smart people in Seiffen explained that the 'angel' was in fact the wife of the miner, thus a worldly creature, and you can't take his wife from him... so the angel survived Socialism. (Can't tell if this is true, but if not the story is well invented.)
The pyramid is an invention of miners who created them as miniature versions of constructions that were used in mining. The pyramid consists of a solid frame with two, four, or six candle holders and a loose middle part which turns round a vertical axis on a metal pin in a glass mounting. The top has propeller wings which are driven by the hot air rising from the candles. Watching a pyramid move is a very meditative
Figures and scenes come in all varieties - angels, singers, miners, village scenes... I own a small one which I bought at the Striezelmarkt in Dresden some years ago. It has a tree in the centre and a nativity scene with Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus, a shepherd and two sheep. Mine moves easily with four little pyramid candles of 6 cm length. Bigger pyramids come with two, three, four storeys; those need bigger candles, usually the size that is also used on Christmas trees.
Some practical hints:
1. Check what size of candles is needed, and if that size is likely to be available in shops of your home country. Finding the small pyramid candles is no problem in and around Germany but I'm not so sure about other parts of the world.
2. When assembling it at the beginning of the season, check if the glass mounting under the metal pin is clean, and put a drop of olive oil in.
3. If the pyramid gets stuck, attention, the wooden wings might scorch.
Seiffen's website has an encyclopedia of woodcarving ("Kleines Lexikon der Holzkunst"): http://www.seiffen.de/lexikon.cfm that explains traditional types and tecniques. Unfortunately there is no version in English, but for those who read German this website might be of interest.
Raachermannel is Ore Mountains dialect for Räuchermännchen which again means "Smoking Man" in English. These smoking men are probably the most popular Christmas figures. They consist of two parts. The upper one is removed and a little incense candle is placed and lit in the figure. Then, it is closed again and starts to "smoke" from a little hole - usually a pipe, but sometimes also items like a tea cooker or so. Raachermanneln exist in the most different types, from a doctor to a miner, from a motorbike driver to a grandma next to her fireplace. If it starts to smoke, this is called "nabeln" in the local dialect. There is also a regionally famous Christmas song "Wenn es Raachermannel nabelt" (When the Smoking Man smokes). Read the lyrics here.
Similarly famous are the nutcrackers. In German, you say "eine harte Nuss zu knacken haben" if you're facing a difficult problem. This derives from the old times when the production of these wooden men was started. People had to suffer from the authoritarian rule of the duke and his men, so they constructed figures looking like them and used them for cracking nuts (Nüsse knacken). That's why the nutcracker figures always look angry.