More tinsel? Tree decorations made in China? Certainly not in Berchtesgaden. This is a town where colourful handmade wooden toys hang on Christmas trees: authentic, traditional and sustainable. We visited the woodcarver Stefan Grassl in his workshop…
Text by Anja Keul, photos by Bernhard Huber
In the centre of Berchtesgaden, opposite the Congress House, a man dressed in blue on a red horse with something sticking out of its bottom, an oversized whistle forming the horse’s tail, greets the visitors.
The picture-book village at the foot of the Watzmann is thus a monument to a tradition that once spread from the far south-west of Bavaria across half of Europe. Roughly carved and colourfully painted wooden toys from Berchtesgaden were a real export hit from the 16th to the 19th century, especially the “Arschpfeifenrössl” or “Arschpfeiferl” for short – German for a traditional wooden horse with a whistle for a tail, which translated means “whistle bottom”.
Then came the tin toy and pushed the Berchtesgadener goods out of the market. More than 100 years ago, the local artist Anton Reinbold came up with the clever and saving idea of hanging “Arschpfeiferl”, “Fatschenkindl” (motif of the baby Jesus), “Kreisl-Mand” (traditional children's toy) and co. as Christmas decorations on the Christmas tree.
Something real on the tree
Today, Berchtesgaden goods are experiencing a renaissance and, threaded on red woollen threads, decorate Advent wreaths and Christmas trees around the Königssee. “In recent years, this has increased more and more,” says Stefan Grassl, who still makes the horses, pinned birds and carriages by hand in his workshop in Ramsau.
Back in fashion: handmade horses, birds and carriages
“People like something real on the tree, not just glitter and tinsel.” You can buy the hand-painted wooden figures directly at the “Schlossplatz” (castle square) in the “Berchtesgadener Handwerkskunst” (handicraft) shop in the former “Fronfeste” (fortress), built around 1510, as well as in the local history museum in Adelsheim Castle.
The tradition of Berchtesgaden craftsmanship is more than 500 years old and originated mainly on the lonely farms of the region during long, cold winters. Since the inhabitants had the right to supply themselves with wood in a designated forest area, a lucrative trade developed from the 15th century onwards, which was regulated by a strict guild system.
Export throughout Europe
Wooden household goods, wooden toys and filigree chip boxes became best sellers and were distributed by so-called “publishers” in almost all of Europe and as far as Asia Minor. Peddlers carried the Berchtesgadener goods through the world with towering backpacks.
The most famous among them was Anton Adner, who is said to have wandered through Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland when he was over a hundred years old. His grave of honour lies in the old cemetery in Berchtesgaden. Carl Spitzweg created a monument to the legend, who died in 1822, with his painting “Der Kraxenträger in der Schlucht” (The Backpacker in the Ravine).
18 parts for one horse
What Adner carried in his backpack was not much different from the small treasures that Stefan Grassl still makes in his workshop today. He cuts each piece out of local lime wood with the help of a template (“it's nice and soft”) and refines it with the carving knife.
For example, it takes 18 miniature elements to complete an “Arschpfeiferl”, from the horse and rider and the spring on the head to the wheels, axles and cotter pins – because the horse should be able to roll, even if it hangs rather immobile on the Christmas tree today.
Pipes made of hard sycamore maple
Finally, the figures get their cheerful colours. Grassl paints the horses in a bright orange, dabbing white patterns onto them with a thumb-sized sponge. The horse riders are mostly pine green or cornflower blue. Grassl also often uses stamps to create a varied floral pattern on carts or a carriage in a simple way.
Only the pipes in the horses’ bottoms always remain unpainted. They are made of hard sycamore maple, the length of a little finger, and get their sound from a round piece of beech wood that is pushed into the finished turned and bored pipe. Because you should whistle in and enjoy the sound, just like in the old days.
Berchtesgadener goods in the museum
It whistles, bright and shrill. And that was, after all, the purpose of it. Friederike Reinbold nobly calls the pleasure of making noise “Lärmbrauch” (noise consumption). After all, the “Arschpfeiferl” used to clatter and whistle through countless farmhouses, pushed and pulled by generations of children.
From export hit to slow seller and back again
Adelsheim Castle keeps the most beautiful examples of the historic "Berchtesgaden War” (Berchtesgaden goods), which also included dolls’ furniture and cricket huts where children kept chirping insects in summer – certainly more pleasant sounds than those of rattles and whistles.
But when they’re hanging on the Christmas tree, no one whistles through the “Arschpfeiferl”. Then they just look pretty, nice and colourful and proud with the feather on their head and the whistle for a tail. Incidentally, it was Friederike Reinbold’s grandfather Anton who had the idea of hanging the Berchtesgadener goods on the Christmas tree at the beginning of the 20th century.
And today? It’s a joy to know that they still exist: small, handmade figurines that simply add a personal touch to the Christmas tree. At the Berchtesgaden Christmas Market, they are of course the attraction.