Do you know where Santa’s workshop is? Ever since we were tiny tots we were told that it’s up at the frozen North Pole. Well no, as it turns out,
it is quite a bit farther south in the eastern part of Germany, very close to the Czech Republic.
Seiffen, a village of about 3,000 people is situated in a remote sparsely settle area, in the heart of the melancholy forests of Erzgebirge
(literally translated "ore mountains"). It is here that lights glow in the windows of the traditional half-timbered houses where modern
day Santa’s elves are busy creating their wooden masterpieces. A nutcracker soldier, the size of a fairy tale giant stands like a sentry at one of
the entranceways to the town. Metal lanterns with Christmas motifs light up the streets and alleyways. Everywhere you look there are larger than life
nativity scenes, Christmas pyramids, nutcrackers and shaved pine cones and stars that are a trademark of Seiffen’s artisans.
Most of the residents play some part in the making of the wooden toys and Christmas ornaments. There are over 100 wood working operations here, most
of them family run businesses. Often the tradition has been handed down from generation to generation; even today’s youth have embraced this institution
The craft of woodworking fits well with Erzgebirge’s enchanting dark and moody forest ambiance. Four centuries ago however, the locals were miners. During
the Middle Ages the Knights of Riesenburg moved into the area to exploit the mountains’ veins of silver. In 1200 they built a castle in the nearby town of
Sayda; forty years later built another in Purchenstein. Silver mining eventually gave way to tin mining. Seiffen is derived from the word "seifen"
which describes the process of washing the soil from the tin ore. When the tin ore was depleted, the miners had to find an alternative way to earn a living,
so they turned to woodworking.
They first made practical objects like plates and utensils. Over time they developed the skill for making wooden toys; their creations became world-renowned.
When the Nazis were in power, some of the workshops switched from making toys to fabricating weapon parts. After World War II, East Germany came under Communist
rule. Even though it was an atheistic regime, the Communist government encouraged the making of Christmas toys and ornaments because they were hungry for U.S.
dollars and West German marks. When the Communist era ended in 1989, many factories and farms in Erzgebirge were brought to ruin.
Since Germany’s reunification in 1990, Seiffen’s citizens have traveled a rocky road to face one of their biggest challenges ever: changing to a Capitalist
system after forty years of Communism. The good news was that families whose businesses had been expropriated by the Communists, had the opportunity to re-acquire
them from a federal agency that was in charge of privatizing property.
The transition hasn’t been easy; many of Seiffen’s toymakers have had to make expensive upgrades to their workshops. They were also faced with marketing their
products, not just locally, but worldwide, through international fairs, using new promotional tools like the internet. Today more than 40 stores have cropped up
in the village, most of them specializing in the wooden creations made by local craftspeople. Tourist accommodations and restaurants are now in abundance to serve
the travelers who flock to Seiffen, helping to keep the woodworking traditions alive.
And what are some of Seiffen’s wooden specialties? Besides the ubiquitous hand painted nutcrackers that come in all sizes, there are creche figures, wooden barnyard
animals, miniature villages, shaved star ornaments, wooden ring ornaments and angels playing musical instruments. There is also a myriad of multitiered carousels
or pyramids with nativity figures on each tier, a wooden arch called a schwibbogen that rises over the Christmas figures, all topped with a wooden fan with adjustable
blades. Lit candles cause the fan to turn through convection, allowing the tiers to rotate. Adjusting the fan blades increases or decreases the speed of rotation.
Smoking men, another specialty, are wooden figures carved in the shape of government bureaucrats, fishermen, hunters, foresters, sausage sellers, bartenders,
etc. By inserting a lit incense cone inside his belly, a curl of smoke emerges from his O-shaped mouth.
One unique toy construction technique I observed while taking a tour of one of the workshops, is called "reifentiere" or literally translated, tire
animals. The artisan begins with a piece of softwood that is turned on a wood lathe into a ring. The skilled woodworker shapes the grooves and curves in varying
degrees and angles, carving both top and bottom of the ring. When the craftsman removes the ring from the lathe, he then cuts a small section out of the ring, like
someone slicing a sliver from a cake. Voila! The result is a perfect profile of a cow, a sheep or a pig! The next worker will finish it off by rounding the edges,
detailing it and finally varnishing or painting the figure. It is simply amazing!
Christmas is perpetual in Seiffen, regardless of the season. This tiny village with an impressive history has successfully survived a roller coaster economy, as well
as numerous political crisis. This is a testament to the indomitable spirit of its people. Christmas is the season of hop and the people of Seiffen have been shining
examples. Did I find Santa’s workshop in this tiny Erzgebirge village? The answer is a resounding, yes!