Käthe Wohlfahrt: Christmas department store
Peaceful? Silent? Or merry?

One thing’s for sure, here the whole year revolves around one thing: Christmas. Germany’s only Christmas museum shows how Christmas decorations evolved from 1870 to the 1950s. Text and photos: Angelika Jakob

Reading time: 12 minutes

The German Christmas Museum

The evening light gives the spires and town walls of medieval Rothenburg ob der Tauber a reddish glow. Half-timbered houses and humped pavements look like they were painted by Spitzweg. With its everlasting Christmas, where else would the Wohlfahrt department store fit better than in this Biedermeier idyll?

All year round, the “Käthe” sounds soothing zither music, with 30,000 festive items whispering “buy me”. Father Christmases, Christmas baubles in all shapes and sizes, doilies, music boxes. There’s simply everything here that you couldn't imagine in terms of Christmas decorations, even in the finest spells of mulled wine.

Oh Christmas Tree!

International visitors stroll through a labyrinth of alleys with half-timbered stalls, past angels, and gnomes. An army of nutcrackers bares its teeth. The snow on the roofs of the stalls never melts. Even extremely shopping-hardened Gulf Arabs, Asians, and Americans on a good-old-Europe tour go into gasps of excitement as they stroll through the Christmas consumer labyrinth

The highlight is a towering white Christmas tree in the centre, decorated with almost 2000 baubles, glittery things, and 12500 Led lights. It’s an absolute selfie hotspot.

Käthe Wohlfahrt Weihnachtsdorf in Rothenburg ob der Tauber

“When I was sixteen, my parents opened their first Christmas shop,” says Harald Wohlfahrt, now 67 and a senior consultant in the company, “We were all about Father Christmases, angels and glass baubles all year round. No one but my parents had the idea of offering these items permanently, which was genius. They were always on the lookout for new product ideas.”

We were all about Father Christmases, angels and glass baubles all year round.

The silent night that never ends

The friendly gentleman in the sports coat and with a correctly trimmed white beard is sitting in a small room on the first floor of the department stores. Through the green bull’s-eye windows he looks down on the snow-covered stalls and the tree in the covered courtyard.

Wooden figurines and a pyramid from the Ore Mountains stand on an old green tiled stove, the tablecloth is embroidered with golden fir branches. “Jingle Bells” quietly penetrates the dim room, everything feels like the longest night of the year - while people lick ice cream outside in the most beautiful sunshine.

“I always wanted to set up a little museum with the wonderful things people came up with for Christmas,” he says, smiling contentedly, “On September 29th, 2000, I opened the first and only German Christmas museum. A 1.25 cm tall Father Christmas with a cane was my first acquisition for the museum,” he recalls, “I discovered him in the display of a hawker's shop. I had to convince the owner to sell it to me.”

Nussknacker XXL vor dem Deutschen Weihnachtsmuseum in Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Harald Wohlfahrt mit seinen Nachfolgern Kenta, Takuma und Aska Wohlfahrt

Upside down

Christmas trees decorated in the style of past decades are displayed in large glass showcases, with a small tree hanging upside down. “Before whole trees were placed in the living room, the flat was decorated with individual branches. At some point, someone had the idea of topping it all and hung a whole tree from the ceiling. Occasionally you can still find this somewhat crazy idea in Eastern Europe,” Wohlfahrt explains the unusual sight.

The history of the Christmas tree

Spruce and fir trees were erected in isolated places as early as the Middle Ages to celebrate the winter solstice. The children were allowed to eat the ornaments: Apples, nuts, sugary treats and even sausages hung from the branches. It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that the custom of placing decorated little trees in the parlours became widespread in German-speaking countries. Little by little, this tradition conquered the whole world.

Christmas changed from a purely religious context to a family celebration with presents, and a magnificently decorated tree initially served as a status symbol in bourgeois and aristocratic circles.  Craftsmen, glassblowers, and woodcarvers produced imaginative decorations for Christmas, children made straw stars, fathers grabbed their fretsaws, and mothers gilded pine cones.

Contemporary history is reflected in the individual items

Decoration in all circumstances

“Contemporary history is reflected in the individual items. Advent calendars and nutcrackers are also subject to fashions,” says Harald Wohlfahrt. “Likewise, smoking men, Father Christmases, Santas, Christmas tree stands, glass ornaments in all shapes, pewter figures, reindeer sleighs...”  Not even in hard times did people go without their tree. The decoration then became more modest, people improvised.

The museum maker stops in front of a sample case of glass baubles: “These baubles are from Lauscha in Thuringia, the cradle of glass jewellery, produced around 1900. Such sample cases weighed many kilos, which the glassblowers' wives had to carry along the 15-kilometre-long glassblowing trail to the traders in Sonneberg. Even when there was finally a train connection, they lugged the heavy suitcases. The ticket would have been too expensive.”

Vitrine mit Gabenbringern, Nikoläusen und Weihnachtsmännern
Musterkoffer mit alten Glaskugeln aus Lauscha

Glass art and carvings

At first, the glass artists from Lauscha could only blow thick-walled, plain glass baubles. Over time, they refined their technique. In the meantime, the most filigree creations leave their workshops: iridescent birds with tails made of glass fibres, all kinds of figures, animals, flowers, objects. The woodcarvers from the Ore Mountains remained bound to tradition: their swinging arches, gnomes and Christmas pyramids do not need modernisation

Everything from cardboard, Dresden cardboard

Among the oldest exhibits are Christmas tree decorations made of paper and cardboard. Especially valuable and coveted by collectors are three-dimensional figures laminated with mica or gold foil, called Dresden cardboard, which were hung on Christmas trees from around 1875.

At that time, cottage workers made sleigh children, girls with ear muffs and other winter motifs out of cotton wool. Animals, fruit, mushrooms and vegetables made of pressed and painted cotton wool were popular even into the 70s of the 20th century. In fact, any material that could be shaped ended up as ornaments on the tree at some point, for example pewter, sugar mass, tinsel, wood, ceramics.

Weihnachtskaufhaus Käthe Wohlahrt mit Weihnachtsmuseum in Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Beautiful memories

Christmas tree decorations were valuable and were passed down from generation to generation. Today, fashions change quickly, one year the tree is all gold, the next it has glass musical instruments, animals or flowers hanging from its branches.

But the children love old things to which they attach fond memories. As adults, they are delighted to discover an angel or a nutcracker in Harald Wohlfahrts’ museum, just as their grandparents still owned them.

Nussknacker und Räuchermännchen in verschidensten Variationen

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