A Joyous Advent and Merry Christmas to all of you!

Last year I posted on some Christmas items from East German times that I have in my collection (see Year end figures with wings we have heard on high . . .) . As one might expect, this popular holiday’s religious connotations posed some challenges to the Communist leadership and every effort was made to direct the celebrations towards the secular version of things.

And Christmas wasn’t all bad for the regime as the seasonal wooden folk art from the country’s Ore Mountain region enjoyed popularity throughout Germany. Recognizing this, the government set up Expertic, a marketing office charged with overseeing the export of Ore Mountain handicrafts to Western countries in return for, you guessed it, hard currency.

In this video blog, I present several such items including the region’s much loved Räuchermännchen (Smoking Men) and an Expertic® music box I recently acquired at a flea market in Bonn. It’s a beautiful piece, but closer examination suggests it may not be as innocuous as first glance suggests . . .

NOTE: One of my German readers has pointed out that the red-coated figure on the music box is clearly the secular “Santa Claus/Father Christmas” and not “Nikolaus”, the Christian saint who is still plays a role in the German Christmas celebrations on Dec. 6th he gives children gifts in a shoe that they leave out for him the night before. Thanks for that correction, Olaf! Much obliged!

In January 1989, lured by the poetry of Wim Wenders’ classic film Wings of Desire and the tragic melancholy of Berlin’s division, my younger self headed to Berlin (for two months of German instruction at the Goethe-Institut just off the West’s main drag, the Kurfürstendamm. The weather was dark, damp and grey and most mornings my classmates and I made our way to the school under a blanket of what we all took to be fog. One morning during our break, our teacher overheard us discussing how it was that landlocked Berlin had such wonderful fog. A native Berliner, teacher proceeded to inform us that those grey clouds were, in fact, smog, specifically, a by-product of the coal ovens many Berliners used to heat their flats. “Had we not noticed the acrid smell in the air?”, she wondered somewhat perplexed. “That was the stink of brown coal briquettes”, she told us,  “and a symptom of a massive environmental problem!” And so I was introduced to brown coal (otherwise known as lignite) . . .

Two chimney sweeps' bicycles parked in East Berlin circa 1993 (photo: B. Newson).

Two chimney sweeps’ bicycles parked in East Berlin circa 1993; note the bullet holes from WW II still unrepaired in the wall behind the bikes (photo: B. Newson).

As we explored the city over the following weeks, we began to notice ceramic-tiled coal oven in cafes and bars, usually in poorer districts, usually standing off in a corner of the room, emitting a lovely warmth into the room and a cloud of pollution into the air outside. When asked about the ovens, the locals would either decry the environmental cost of their use or praise the “gemütlich” (“cozy”) quality of the heat. Not surprisingly, the situation was no different on the East side of the Wall with the tenements of the old working class districts of Prenzlauer Berg, Lichtenberg and Mitte heated largely by identical brown coal ovens.

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Handmade angels in a traditional Saxon-style as produced by “Gerda Elten Arts and Crafts”

Holidays with religious roots posed a bit of a challenge to the GDR’s socialist masters. Officially, the GDR was a secular state and a significant portion of both Party members and the general public regarded organized religion with great suspicion often bordering on hostility. (For an interesting piece on how these attitudes persist see this recent article in The Guardian which labels the former-East “the most godless place on earth”.)

That said, as is the case in today’s Canada, religious-based holidays (e.g. Christmas and Easter), continued to have great significance on the social calendar. In the GDR, the state naturally downplayed the religious aspects of the holidays, sometimes to rather comical effect. An example of this is illustrated by this week’s featured item, a set of handmade angels crafted by a folk artist from the Saxon city of Leipzig. Read More

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