German village lures tourists with beautiful nutcrackers

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SEIFFEN, Germany -- Giant nutcrackers stand sentinel in shop doorways. The aroma of hot mulled wine wafts through the air. And street lanterns glow day and night with colorful Christmas motifs.

The only thing missing on the autumn day I visited Seiffen was snow.

But that doesn't matter in this charming, "Toy Story" kind of town in eastern Germany's wooded Erzgebirge, or Ore Mountains. Located off the beaten tourist path, just minutes from the Czech Republic border, the tiny toy-making village is the 19th century birthplace of the nutcracker and evokes the Christmas spirit year-round.

Travelers come in all four seasons to stroll tidy streets lined with dozens of boutiques and workshops showcasing the region's signature folk art: high-quality wooden nutcrackers, spinning pyramids and other yuletide items handcrafted for generations by skilled local artisans.

Clustered in modest workshops, cooperatives or small family-owned businesses, many of the woodworkers are descendants of the original Ore Mountain miners who tapped rich deposits of silver, iron ore, nickel and tin for centuries. The town's name, in fact, relates to the sieves they used to wash the tin ore.

By the 1800s, when the minerals were tapped out, the miners sought new ways to feed their families and struck gold with their well-honed hobby of wood-crafting. Their products caught on in Dresden, Leipzig and elsewhere in Germany's famed Christmas markets, and Seiffen's new industry took off. The colorful wooden toys, particularly Noah's Ark playsets, soon became popular in North America with Victorian-era collectors.

Today, some 2,000 woodworkers and about 150 manufacturers continue the local toymaking tradition, according to Dieter Uhlmann, chairman of Seiffen's Woodworkers Association. The handicrafts, whether carved by hand, lathe or ring-turned (a special technique used to make small wooden animals) are rooted in the region's 500-year-old mining tradition and the miners' perennial craving for light.

The wooden nutcrackers, with their fierce expressions, were the working man's subversive nudge at soul-crushing authority figures, from supervisors and bosses to gendarmes and kings. Quirky incense burners, shaped like small men with pipes that puff scented smoke, represent the average guy on the street. They're called "smoking men," and Santa Claus and snowmen figures are included in their ranks.

If you go ... Seiffen, Germany

Getting there: From Pittsburgh, United, US Airways and Lufthansa offer connecting service to Dresden. Seiffen is about 90 minutes by rental car or bus from Dresden. You can also take a train from Dresden to the silver-mining town of Freiberg, then a short bus ride to Seiffen.

Lodging: Decorated with local woodcrafts, the Hotel Erbgericht Buntes Haus is in the town center. Summer rates start at about $100 double occupancy, including breakfast; availability is tight in months leading up to the holidays so it's best to plan far ahead.

Attractions: Seiffen's three-story Toy Museum ( Also, the famous Round Church, blazing with light from lanterns, candles and a Moravian star on its tower, is a popular draw at Advent for concerts presented by the choir and trombone choir.

Events: Seiffen's annual Christmas Market runs through Dec. 22 this year. Traditional Miners parades take place Dec. 14, and an annual torch-lit procession along the old miners' paths is Dec. 7.


From matchbox miniature to king-size, nutcrackers span the color palette. The most memorable are the wooden soldiers painted in crisp primary colors -- Christmas red, royal blue, bright yellow and shiny black. Other wooden toys, from animals and angels to snowmen and chefs, are done up in a rainbow array of colors.

Elegant spinning Christmas pyramids, candle arches and candle-carrying angels that symbolize the miners' wives waiting patiently at home are among Seiffen's other traditional wooden specialties.

Many of the woodcrafts feature Seiffen's famous octagon church perched on a hill above the village, which could be straight out of a German fairy tale. Dating to 1779 and known as the Round Church, it is well worth a visit if you need a break from the handicrafts spilling from the storefronts. Wooden carvings of the distinctive Baroque church, fronted by a group of sweet choirboys, are popular Seiffen souvenirs.

The Toy Museum, or Spielzeugmuseum, is a treat, too. It's a great place to learn about the region's history, see hand-carved wooden chandeliers and pose for photos alongside towering nutcrackers and twirling pyramids.

Some Seiffen visitors, such as Mona Mesereau of suburban Denver, succumb to "nutcracker fever" and give their credit cards a real workout. A collector for more than 20 years, she brings to mind the proverbial "kid in a candy shop" as she blitzes the German village.

"I love the quality -- what a difference from what you'd buy in a department store!" she says, midway through her buying binge. "So much of what we have is 'Made in China' and certainly not hand-carved."

Ms. Mesereau and her shopping companions stopped at one of the local co-op workshops to see German wood-crafting in action. They saw modern-day Santa's elves: young apprentices such as Abel Burma, 19, hunched over a lathe, and village women, known for their steady hands, showing off their painting skills. Amid piles of wood shavings and the scent of fresh-carved wood, the visitors learned that a typical nutcracker is composed of 15 to 20 different parts and that 135 steps are involved in building it.

The wood is hand-turned, polished, primed, glued, assembled, painted and decorated; finished figures are hand-packed. All the items carry fairly high price tags and a stamp of authenticity: "echt Erzgebirge" -- "made in the Ore Mountains."

Prized for their high-quality, the nutcrackers come in various sizes, shapes and prices, from about $70 for a 12-inch soldier, king or Santa, for example, to as much as $30,000 for a Gerhard Feldevert limited edition. The latter boasts a one-carat diamond, gold buckle, 24-karat gold leaf and real fur trim. Miniature snowmen and matchbox toys are much less.

Clutching her purchases -- three nutcrackers and three "smoking men" -- Ms. Mesereau says her visit to Seiffen taught her the story behind the beloved Christmas figures popularized by Tchaikovsky's 1892 "Nutcracker" ballet.

"The double entendre ... is absolutely hilarious," she says, citing the miners' subtle digs at authority figures. "And I like the fact that nutcrackers are not super-elegant. We're used to going to Christmas parties all done up in gold and coordinated decorations. This is a little more whimsical, and I'm attracted to that."

Susan R. Pollack is a travel writer who lives in suburban Detroit.

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