My family’s December is filled with Christmas traditions. As a kid, I couldn’t wait to climb into the attic and dig out our boxes of holiday decorations. My younger brother always remembered exactly where we had stored the boxes the year before, and his first order of business was to unearth the stocking and hang them by the fireplace. My favorite box contained our Christmas picture books. Certain stories were reread so many times over the holidays that we all knew them by heart, including the “The Grinch” and “The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree.” Finding a Christmas tree with the Dunklees was almost as much of an adventure as with the Berenstain Bears. It involved a parade down the driveway with the dogs trotting eagerly ahead and the cats trailing along behind. In the swamp we would pick out our “perfect” tree (it usually had a tangle of unkempt boughs and was missing branches in key places). My brothers and I would argue over who got to saw it down and drag it back on the sled.
Back at home, we’d eat dinner around a table glowing with candle light. At the center of the table sat a German Christmas pyramid with intricate wood carvings.
The heat from the candles at the bottom of the pyramid spun the paddles above and caused the multiple levels of rotating wooden carvings to rotate. The bottom layer had wise men and their camel marching circles around a manager scene. Upper levels depicted shepherds and angels. Sometimes the spinner would get stuck and we’d spend half of dinner tinkering with the candles or the paddles trying to get it moving again. We admired the design and craftsmanship of the pyramid and speculated how long it would take to make. My parent told me they bought it from a catalog for $20 soon after the iron curtain fell. There is no way that price accurately reflects the work that must have gone into it.
When I showed up at my parents’ house a couple days before Christmas this year, I discovered my father’s workbench covered in wood shavings, delicate saw work, and half finished carvings. He’s tackling a project that he’s been talking about for years: building his own spinning pyramid.
It will have one level for each of us kids. Mine will have skiers and biathletes on it, and he’s dreaming up ways to make a little biathlon target change colors from white to black as the scene spins. I spent one morning trying to roughly shape a biathlete out of a block of wood. Even with the help of a power jigsaw to get me started, the figure was barely recognizable after a couple hours of work.
Christmas pyramids originated in the Erzgebirge Mountains (also known as the Ore Mountains) of Germany along the Czech border, and evolved out of similar ancient traditions as the Christmas tree. For hundreds of years, the inhabitants of the Erzgebirge region mined silver, tin, iron and copper, but as the minerals ran out, they needed to supplement their income. They turned to wood carving and toy making, and the region is now famous for making spinning pyramids and nutcrackers, among other things. Most of the creations depict either religious themes or folk themes, such as mining. Unlike most of the things we see for sale today, these wood carvings are not mass produced, and none of them look exactly the same.
Altenberg, Germany lies in the heart of the Erzgebirge region and has many shops that showcase such wood carvings.
It is also famous for its biathlon venue. I have been lucky enough to visit Altenberg for IBU Cup biathlon races and to see shops filled with wooden figurines, mining arches, and spinning pyramids.
Last year the Altenberg races served as the US Olympic Team selection trials and my visit there was more stressful than I would have liked. However, I’ll be returning there in January for more IBU Cup races and I’m excited to take in more of the village and culture. Maybe I’ll find some inspiration. I’ve got a vision swimming around in my mind of a Craftsbury spinning pyramid, with scullers, skiers, runners, and solar panels…