Monday, December 13, 2010

Candle-powered German Christmas pyramids tell story

Q: With the Christmas season upon us, I thought I would share an unusual tree with you. Back in about 1950, I dated a young lady in South Chicago who took me to see a tree her aunt had. I was told it came from Poland, but can't confirm that. I haven't met anyone who has seen the likes of this.

The large candles at the top created an upward draft that turned the vanes. The vanes, connected to a center pole, turned the pole and about five separate shelves, each with a Christmas scene.

I never saw it work and was told that the candles made such smoke that they would blacken the ceiling. Pretty neat. I wonder if you can fill in some details, such as what it's called and where it came from.

William Hickman

Roanoke

A: This unique holiday decoration is called a Christmas pyramid and has its origins in the Erzgebirge region of old-world Germany. It is an art form that dates to the 16th century, and many believe that our current Christmas tree traditions evolved from the German Christmas pyramid.

Your sweetheart was correct when she explained how it works. The candles generate enough heat to turn a fan, which then causes a center axle to spin and allows figurines on various platforms of the pyramid to move. The pyramids are also known as candle carousels, lightstocks, Windradchen and table whirligigs.

In early versions of the pyramids, Erzgebirge woodworkers would create landscapes and depictions of everyday life. They would use their moving artwork to capture the attention of children and teach them Bible stories. The artisans would create figurines depicting each part of a story and arrange them in order on the tiers of the pyramid. As the heat from the candles began to turn the fan, the figures would move or spin in turn as the story was told.

The Christmas pyramids tell the Nativity story of Jesus' birth, angels blowing their trumpets, shepherds visiting the stable, and magi bringing gifts.

Most candle pyramids are designed as tabletop decorations and range from 8 inches to 78 inches tall. Today, some of the larger pyramids are designed to run on electricity, rather than on candle heat.

According to the website for ChristKindl-Markt, a German online retailer, the largest Christmas pyramid is in Dresden. It is 45 feet tall and has five lighted levels.

The tabletop pyramids sold by ChristKindl-Markt are still made by Erzgebirge artisans, and sell for $50 to $500. I suspect your friend's pyramid had much greater sentimental value.

Got a question? Got an answer? Call Bridget Bradburn at 777-6476 or send an e-mail to whatsonyourmind@roanoke.com. Don't forget to provide your full name, its proper spelling and your hometown.

Look for Bridget Bradburn's column on Mondays.

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