Angels coming down to earth, sheep turning their heads, Wise Men riding camels to seek out the Christ child – the mechanical Weihnachtsberg, begun by Max Vogel in 1885, adds movement to the Christmas story. But it is much more than just a large-scale animated manger scene; it belongs to a special tradition from the Ore Mountains and is the result of years of passionate tinkering.

A Christmas Tradition
Weihnachtsberge are part of the Christmas customs in homes in the Ore Mountains and reached the zenith of their popularity between the 1870s and the 1930s. They get their name because the crafted nativity landscapes resemble mountains and were set up as part of the Christmas decorations in people’s homes in the villages. Mechanical Weihnachtsberge with moving figures attracted particular admiration because they needed not only skill in crafting and carving but also a great deal of technical expertise to devise a mechanism that made the figures on the mountain seem ‘alive’ and set them in motion at the right moment.

Mechanical Weihnachtsberge are a speciality of the Ore Mountains, a region that was heavily involved in ore mining over many centuries. The mechanical Weihnachtsberge, too, have their roots partly in mining, or rather in the mine models made in the 18th Century. Their other roots lie in the reconstruction and re-enacting of the biblical events around the legend of the birth of Jesus Christ in what are known as nativity scenes.

The Ore Mountains are a natural barrier between protestant Saxony and the neighbouring catholic Bohemia, which until 1919 was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Contacts across this ‘green border’ constantly brought new ideas to and fro, especially as the people on both sides of the border were German speakers.

Figurative nativity scenes date from the 18th Century in Bohemia. In 1782 Emperor Joseph II banned the setting up of nativity scenes in all churches in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, probably providing the main impetus for the widespread custom in the 19th Century for people to make their own home-made nativity scenes. The ban was not lifted until 1804.

These nativity scenes became increasingly popular in the Saxon part of the Ore Mountains as well, even though the setting-up of nativity scenes in protestant churches there was frowned on. The miners in the Saxon part of the Ore Mountains were very fond of carving and were only too happy to adopt the Bohemian nativity tradition.

Nativity figures meet mine models
As mining declined in the Ore Mountains the practice spread among the mining communities of making models of mines depicting the extraction and processing of ore in miniature form. The first Saxon Weihnachtsberge did not just use the skills learned there, mining itself was a theme. But as mining disappeared so too did its depiction in the Weihnachtsberge.

In the second half of the 19th Century, Weihnachtsberge were made – increasingly by craftsmen instead of by miners – in an ‘oriental’ style, and were now given over entirely to the biblical story.

Building the ‘family mountain’ often began right after the wedding. Starting with the depiction of the nativity with the Christ child in the manger, craftsmen would add more scenes to their mountain year by year. Each year the mountain was set up at Christmas to the joy of all the family.

In the last third of the 19th Century houses and accessories were already being mass-produced. This meant that even people inexperienced at crafting could put together their own Weihnachtsberg scenes. A few carvers and craftsmen came together to form Weihnachtsberg clubs. By the First World War countless large club mountains had been made, with ever more sophisticated mechanisms.

Mechanisms were becoming ever more sophisticated. Drives using weights or sand were succeeded by clockwork and even steam machines, which were finally replaced by electric motors. Candles and rapeseed oil lamps were replaced by electric lighting, which made atmospheric lighting possible. Illusionistic painting effects were used to merge the real figures and buildings cleverly into the background landscape.

The First World War almost completely halted the construction of Weihnachtsberge; after a brief revival, the Second World War finally brought to an end the Weihnachtsberg tradition as it had been known. In the atheist GDR Weihnachtsberge could practically only be seen in museums. Others disappeared into attics where they were forgotten. Today there are just a handful of private Weihnachtsberge left, in the hands of connoisseurs who lovingly care for them.

The Weihnachtsberg by Max Vogel
The mechanical Weihnachtsberg in the Museum of European Cultures is the only one of this size outside the Ore Mountains. Max Vogel (1867 – 1943) was a master painter from Neuwürschnitz and started building this mountain in about 1885. Starting with the Annunciation, it tells the story of the life of Christ in more than twenty scenes including the Passion. The Weihnachtsberg was last set up in Neuwürschnitz in 1940. It fell into complete neglect in the years after the war. More than 40 years later Karl-Heinz Fischer (born in 1952) bought the fragments of the Weihnachtsberg in order to reconstruct it. It was no easy task – there were no documents relating to it and anybody who had seen it set up was long dead. The way the pieces fitted together could only be roughly guessed at from two photographs taken around 1930. Later a handwritten list of contents and some 25 box labels written by Max Vogel turned up.

The existing parts and figures were analysed and catalogued between 1987 and 1990. Then a thorough restoration was started and missing figures were carved in a contemporary style. Following this reconstruction, the Weihnachtsberg now has 328 figures in all, of which 139 moved, and the mountain had grown considerably with new scenes added.

Karl-Heinz Fischer completely rebuilt the base and the mechanism. While Max Vogel used clockwork, weights, crank handles and other mechanisms to drive his moving figures, Karl-Heinz Fischer installed an electric motor for the central drive shaft running beneath the whole Weihnachtsberg. He tinkered with the new Weihnachtsberg for nearly ten years. It was bought for the Museum of European Cultures in 1996.

A Moving Story
The 12 metre long mechanical Weihnachtsberg reveals a landscape with buildings against a painted background, an impressive backdrop for the 328 figures, which tell stories from the bible, like the following scenes from the story of Jesus’ birth...

The Angel Gabriel visits Mary and tells her that she will bear the son of God.

In the night of Jesus’ birth shepherds are living out in the fields nearby keeping watch over their sheep flocks.

An angel appears to them and they are sore afraid.

And even the lambs raise their heads in surprise.

But the angel says to them, “Fear not!” and tells them of the birth of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The shepherds make their way to the city of Bethlehem to visit the new-born Christ child.

He is lying on a bed of straw in a manger between Mary and Joseph.

Above the stable with the manger is a choir of angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

But the shepherds are not the only visitors.

Three kings are making their way to the manger, led by a bright star.

The many figures are set in motion at the push of a button thanks to the complex but invisible mechanism beneath this lovingly made Weihnachtsberg, and the biblical scenes spring to life. In the video they are accompanied by a musical backdrop.

Museum Europäischer Kulturen, National Museums in Berlin
Credits: Story

Text: Tina Peschel: Chrismas Mountains from the Saxon Erzgebirge, in: Cultural Contacts. Living in Europa, published by Elisabeth Tietmeyer und Irene Ziehe for the Museum Europäischer Kulturen – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Koehler & Amelang Verlag 2011.

Concept / Editing / Realisation: Alina Helwig, Lisa Janke

Photos/Video: Museum Euopäischer Kulturen, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Ute Franz-Scarciglia, Sven Stienen

Music: Malith Krishnaratne

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Museum Europäischer Kulturen

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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