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East German woodcarvers who helped keep the Christmas market tradition alive are still in demand.
BERLIN, Germany — Once upon a time, when there was a communist East Germany, a real-life Grinch stole Christmas and turned it into a “socialist festival for peace.”
However, the old tradition of Christmas markets continued behind the Berlin Wall.
Neither Jesus nor Santa was welcome in the atheist, anti-materialist East. And the authorities tried their best to decimate one of the region's long-thriving industries: the Christmas woodcarvers of Erzgebirge, the eastern Ore Mountains.
But the carvers kept their craft alive, continuing to produce nutcrackers, angels and even nativity scenes, albeit with new names.
Angels, for instance, were renamed “Jahresendflügelfigur,” or "winged year-end figurines."
“The names were rubbish,” says Dieter Uhlmann, who heads the Association of Erzgebirger Artisans and Toy Manufacturers.
But they enabled the trade to survive.
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Today, in Berlin's central Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market, Bavarian woodcarver Ernst Kraus slowly chips away at a life-sized and lifelike carving of a ram as throngs of holiday shoppers pass by. He says East German officials tried to turn Erzebirge's artists into factory workers who would make Christmas figures on lathes instead of carving them by hand.
“They wanted only industrial products for export,” he says.
But the communists failed to end Christmas and couldn't kill Erzgebirg, either.
The region’s woodcarving dates to the Middle Ages, when workmen flocked to its thriving silver and tin mines. They took to woodcarving to while away the long winter nights.
When the mines petered out in the 18th century, carving took over as the main industry.
Later, under communism, when the rest of East Germany raced toward industrialization with no eye to whether markets existed for factory goods, Erzebirg stuck to tradition.
“Business was good even in the GDR,” Uhlmann says of the German Democratic Republic, East Germany’s official name.
“There was a substantial export to the Federal Republic,” or West Germany, he says. “There were no restrictions because there was a clear demand.”
After Germany's reunification in 1990, management consultants brought in to evaluate East German state-owned industries found few of their products able to compete.
There was a two-stroke engine car made out of Bakelite, padlocks made from aluminum, and chicken hatcheries with more employees than birds.
Most of those factories were simply closed down and others forced to fire as many as half the employees from their bloated rosters.
But Erzebirg's wood carving business was an exception.
“After reunification, the state-owned carving units were reprivatized, but the scale of the industry remained the same,” Uhlmann says.
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Today, however, Germans from both sides of the former wall say Christmas faces a new threat: unfettered commercialization.
So much that the director of Rothenburg’s Christmas museum this year felt compelled to file an application to protect Germany's Father Christmas, or “Weinachtsmann,” from being overtaken by the American-style Santa Claus.
Across German cities these days, Christmas markets are more likely to feature plastic toys and amusement park-style rides than once-ubiquitous handicrafts.
But you wouldn't know that from a visit to posh Gendarmenmarkt, where there’s a steady flow of tourists and locals lining up to wind their way through a shop selling traditional Christmas handicrafts, a full display dedicated to carvings from Erzgebirg.
With a retail market of more than $150 million, Uhlmann says, “we're unable to meet the demand.”