Jingle all the way around the world

Germany has cornered the global market on Christmas, from creating handmade wooden toys and gingerbread to laying on spectacular festive markets across many European cities.
The Christmas market in Dresden. The Germans are tapping into a growing global market, from wooden toys to gingerbread and entire Christmas markets. Matthias Hiekel / EPA
The Christmas market in Dresden. The Germans are tapping into a growing global market, from wooden toys to gingerbread and entire Christmas markets. Matthias Hiekel / EPA

If you think of German exports, cars and machinery spring to mind - epitomised by the old Audi ad slogan Vorsprung durch Technik, meaning "progress through technology".

But the country has cornered the global market on Christmas as well, building on its own rich culture for the festival and handicraft skills that go back centuries.

"Our products are handmade and retain their value," says Dieter Uhlmann, the director of the Association of Erzgebirge Artisans and Toymakers.

"They're handed down through generations. And now we've noticed increasing demand for our higher-priced goods such as traditional-looking music boxes packed with electronics, or gold-plated angels."

A range of seasonal traditions adopted across the western world originated in Germany. The Germans introduced the concept of the Christmas tree in the mid-19th century, and were the first to produce the colourful glass baubles to decorate them.

From wooden toys to gingerbread and entire Christmas markets, Germans are tapping into a growing global market and are even trying to establish a foothold in countries that do not celebrate the Christian festival.

Craftsmen in the village of Seiffen, tucked in a valley in the Ore Mountains of eastern Germany, invented the nutcracker, in about 1890. They also devised the "Smoking Man" - a figure that billows incense through its mouth from a candle in its belly. He traditionally takes the shape of a woodsman, postman, miner or Santa Claus.

In these wooded hills near the Czech border, often shrouded in fog and cut off by snow in the winter months, enterprising firms have been trying to broaden the appeal of the products by coming up with designs such as an "Uncle Sam" nutcracker for American buyers. One company, Müller, even makes a "Smoking Sheikh" and is trying to break into the Arab market with it.

Other typical products include wooden angels and choirs as well as rotating pyramids driven by the heat of candles. Seiffen alone has some 130 woodworking firms ranging from backroom workshops to companies employing more than 100 people. Of the 2,000 artisans who make the famous figures in this region, about half live in and around Seiffen.

The figures are firm fixtures in households across Europe during the Christmas season. Woodwork from the Ore Mountains, or Erzgebirge, is brand-protected and generates some €100 million (Dh473.9m) in sales each year, of which 20 per cent is exported.

It is a resilient industry built up by hardy folk accustomed to the tough climate and the ravages of fate. "Woodworking in this area goes back over 300 years. The people had to start making a living from carpentry in the 17th century when the mining industry collapsed," says Konrad Auerbach, the director of the Seiffen Toy Museum.

"Their business survived wars, economic crisis and the communist East German era because they were always able to adapt to the tastes of the age."

They made tables and chairs and ordinary items at first before branching out into toys in the early 18th century. One hundred years later, they began exporting wooden animals and toy soldiers to Britain and the United States. Then they turned their attention to Christmas ornaments as the tradition of family Christmas - relatives coming together to celebrate the festival - began to take hold in Europe.

During the Second World War, they were forced to switch from nutcrackers to making ammunition boxes, handles for hand grenades and even parts for the V2 rocket, Adolf Hitler's would-be wonder weapon. Then came four decades of communism, when authorities nationalised many of the firms and exported virtually all their output to the West to earn hard currency.

But the artisans kept on carving, hammering and painting and even coped with the overnight transition to the free market following German unification in 1990.

Now they face new challenges in the form of cheap Chinese replicas and a lack of young apprentices.

The average age of an Erzgebirge toymaker is mid-to-late 50s. The pay tends to be too low to attract new recruits and young people are in short supply anyway because many moved away to better-paid jobs after unification.

"The American market has been flooded with cheap nutcrackers," says Ringo Müller, the owner and manager of Müller, founded by his great-grandfather in 1899.

"You have got to be innovative and move with the times."

Mr Müller, 42, employs 40 people and has developed an electronic music box that looks traditional on the outside but is packed with gizmos devised in collaboration with Chemnitz Technical University. His music boxes play a wide range of tunes and even audio recordings such as church bells, and can be programmed to chime on the hour or be an alarm clock.

Germany exported some €76m worth of Christmas trees and decorations last year, an 8 per cent rise over 2010, according to the federal statistics office. Exports of gingerbread - another seasonal delicacy - amounted to 14,800 tonnes.

A total of 1.6 tonnes went to the UAE, but that was a 23 per cent rise over 2010.

Christmas Stollen cake from the eastern city of Dresden, a bread loaf-shaped cake containing raisins and spices based on a recipe stretching back half a millennium, is a further product that originated in Germany. Its trademark is closely guarded by the city's Stollen Protection Association. Only Stollen baked within the limits of the baroque city is entitled to call itself Dresdner Stollen.

"We sold more than three million last year. They went all over the world, including Asia," says a spokeswoman for the association.

An increasingly popular seasonal export is the German Christmas market itself - wooden stalls selling handicrafts and cakes. It is now a common sight in many European cities, especially in Britain, thanks in part to Kurt Stroscher, an official from the Frankfurt tourist office.

Mr Stroscher pioneered the establishment of the markets in Britain by setting up the first one in Birmingham, which is twinned with Frankfurt, in 1997.

It had just 11 stalls run by German traders selling their wares and was intended as a one-off gesture to show the burghers of Birmingham how the Germans celebrate Christmas. But the idea mushroomed and, although it may be hard to believe, Birmingham was the world's most popular Christmas market last year, attracting 5.2 million visitors.

"I never planned to launch anything as big as this but I must say the fact that it has become so big makes me proud," says Mr Stroscher, who has since set up similarly traditional markets in the northern English cities of Manchester and Leeds and in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Other entrepreneurs have jumped on the bandwagon and Christmas markets have become ubiquitous in British cities, albeit less traditional.

"The one in London's Hyde Park is a mixture between Christmas market and Oktoberfest [a Bavarian folk festival]," says Mr Stroscher.

Department stores have followed the trend and offer German seasonal foods. Stollen and Lebkuchen, spiced gingerbread from Nuremberg, are now common sights in supermarkets in Britain and across Europe.

So, alongside the Audi slogan, Germany can also spout the proud boast: vorsprung durch Weihnachten - "progress through Christmas".


Published: December 11, 2012 04:00 AM


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