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What is a Räuchermännchen?

There he stands - an old forester with a white beard and a long pipe. He’s just taken it out of his mouth and is now blowing tobacco smoke into the air. He looks around in a leisurely fashion, radiating a comfortable aura.
This is the concept around which these Räuchermännchen are designed. They are small wooden figurines with a pipe and a round, open mouth that emitts smoke. The Räuchermännchen was invented by the toy makers of the Erzgebirge (Engl. - Ore Mountains, located in eastern Germany) around the year 1830.

How is it that the wooden figures smoke?

The smoker is a successful combination of decoration, fragrance and playfulness. It consists of two wooden parts that are placed on top of each other. A piece of wood forms the base. This can either be the figure’s legs or a kind of pedestal. Then a scented cone incense is placed inside and lit. Next, a second piece of wood is placed over it. The inside is hollow but from the outside appears to be the full figure of a person or just their upper body.
The head with the round mouth hole is characteristic; from it billows the smoke produced by the incense burning inside. The figure comes either with the pipe in hand or it is placed on the side of the mouth. It looks as if the little wooden figure is smoking his pipe and blowing out the smoke like a real man. The aromatic smell of the incense candle enriches the atmosphere in the room.

What is an Räuchermännchen used for?

In the Erzgebirge, it was an old tradition to burn fragrant incense-candles over the Christmas season. To prevent fires, they were covered with a lid. Most of the residents of the Erzgebirge lived from mining. Around 1800, the industry died and the former miners were forced to change professions. They became lathe operators, designing and creating wooden furniture and utensils. Some places, such as Seiffen and Olbenhau, specialized in wooden toys and figures.
The creative craftsmen soon came up with the idea of carving special wooden figures for their Christmas smoking candles. Over the course of a few workdays, the simple covers were transformed into the classic German Räuchermännchen. Since then, it has been a standing tradition to put up these fragrant and entertaining smokers over the Christmas season, together with candle arches and Christmas angels. Over the centuries, this creation from the Erzgebirge has spread throughout Germany and beyond.

How many types of smokers are there?

The imagination knows no limits. Any motif with smoking or steaming properties can be made into an incense burner. Historically, the ordinary folk, meaning professional tradesmen, were the first to be depicted. This included foresters, miners and soldiers as well as peddlers and tinkers. Very popular is also the dumpling woman; the bowl of dumplings in the figurines hands appear to be steaming. Over time, new ideas and motifs were added on. The figures were given buckled legs and sat on furniture or table edges. These types of Räuchermännchen are called edgesitters. Any conceivable scenario from everyday life is possible; for this, a base pedestal made of wood is used. As with a doll's house, small furniture and figures can be arranged. A popular motif is the "Three Skat Players" at the table. Not far from the Erzgebirge lived the people of Vogtland. The Vogtland residents took the idea and designed a ‘moose man’ version of the Räuchermännchen. A smoking forest spirit with a green hat, this figure is said to have helped poor families and is able to transform forest leaves into gold.

What else can smoke?

Everything that has a chimney is also suitable for the design of a smoking candle decoration. Smoke houses have been popular for some years, and can be made of wood or metal. They are just as lovingly painted and decorated as the Räuchermännchen. They often depict the backdrop of a snow-covered cottage in winter.

Table of Contents

How does a Räuchermännchen work?

Räuchermännchen are absolutely perfect for the Christmas season. Whether it’s Santa Clause, a postman or fire fighter, the smoking figures not only bring a certain Christmas flair to the home, but also provide a pleasant, Christmas-like fragrance, thanks to the extensive range of incense candles. But how exactly do Räuchermännchen work? To answer this question, you must first understand what conditions are needed for the smoke to rise.

Smokers always consist of two parts - the top and the bottom. The upper part of the figurine is outfitted with a hole from which the smoke can escape; usually this is a mouth. An incense holder is secured on the top of the bottom part, making sure not to damage the wood. To make the Räuchermännchen smoke, first remove the top. Light the incense candle, then immediately blow out the flame.
Next, place the smoldering embers on the incense holder. As soon as the smoke starts rising, place the top back on the bottom part. But how does the smoke come out of the mouth? The so-called ‘chimney effect’ is responsible for this. Since warm air has a lower density than cold air, a current of warm air develops in the interior of the smoker. This flow of air pushes the heated air upwards through the smoke opening.
At the same time, a vacuum is created that draws cold air from the outside into the interior. This is why the lower opening, which is usually located opposite the top next to the candle plate, is important. The incoming cold air is heated by the incense cone and the process starts again. This is how the effect is maintained until the incense has been extinguished.

But what can you do if the figure does not want to smoke properly? In this case, the two openings should be checked first. They could be clogged with residue or other material, thus preventing air drafts. If this is the issue, cleaning with a small brush should solve the problem quickly. For high-quality models, however, this happens very rarely.
Above all, Räuchermännchen from the Erzgebirge are impressive in their quality. The detailed incense burners from the toy village of Seiffen have little in common with the figurines commonly sold at Christmas markets these days. It’s no coincidence then that Seiffen is a popular Christmas holiday destination for tourists. Here, the beloved figurines are produced with care and diligence in accordance with years of tradition. In addition to the Räuchermännchen, bowls, pyramids and nutcrackers are among the most popular Christmas decorations, but these works of art can be admired all year round in Seiffen. Visitors can closely observe the production of smokers in demonstration workshops and get information about the history of the figures and the village in museums. No doubt many visitors take advantage of this excellent opportunity to expand on their collection of smokers and other Christmas decorations.

What is the purpose of the Räuchermännchen?

The Räuchermännchen serve not only a decorative purpose; they are also used to burn incense candles and cones. The original idea behind the Räuchermännchen, was that the incense used in the churches, could also be used in people’s homes. Once upon a time, after all, the three wise men gave gold, myrrh, and incense to the newborn Jesus. In remembrance of the Christmas festival, the rooms of faithful Christians should also be filled with that fragrance.
A smoker typically consists of two parts: The bottom part forms the base and is equipped with a fire-proof insert made of metal, whereupon the incense candles can be placed. These are ignited, with the material burning gradually, which produces a lot of smoke. The upper part, whose outer side usually is that of an artistically designed figure, is hollowed out inside. In addition, the figure has a smoke opening in the form of a hole, whereby the resulting smoke can be drawn off. This is usually at the mouth of the figure.

Many different varieties of Räuchermännchen models can be found today. The origin of the typical incense burner is the Erzgebirge, where long ago they were crafted with care and great attention to detail. Due to the strong influence of the mining industry on the region at the time, most of the first Räuchermännchens were figures depicting the typical hand-worker professions of the time, for example miners. Today, however, Santa Clause, snowmen, shepherds and animal figures are also made and distributed in the form of incense burners. There are also female versions (Räucherfrauen) of the smokers e.g. in the form of angels. There are entire scenarios in which incense burners are placed and also wooden houses emitting smoke from the chimney. In spite of the variety, the figures usually feature a Christmas theme, as these figures are mainly used during the Christmas season for decorative purposes, and occasionally to burn incense.
The so-called edgesitters also hold their own in the ranks of Räuchermännchen models. They fulfill a special decorative purpose, since they can be placed on a table edge or the edge of the window sill, while emanating smoke into the room.
The variety of incense candle fragrances available to buy is tremendous. The traditional Christmas incense is collection typically includes tannin, chocolate, fruit fragrances, etc.

The historical origin of the incense burner
Smoke and fragrance - A short history of incense burners

Long before the first smokers in the Erzgebirge were cheerfully puffing away, the practice of slowly burn certain herbs and resins was quite common. Even the ancient Egyptians knew of and appreciated the pleasant smells that the burning of herbs can produce. The ancient Romans also burned incense in their houses, depending on the circumstances. Of course, they did not need any dolls for this; they simply used small bowls made of metal or simply stones on which the material was laid and then lit.

More than 2000 years later, in the 18th and early 19th century, the peasants, craftsmen and miners in the Saxon Erzgebirge were also accustomed to burning incense in their huts and houses on a regular basis. Hardly surprising: In the dwellings of the poor, it must have stank terribly at times. Large families lived, worked and slept there in a confined space - the natural exhalations of the average human being alone can produce what is understandably referred to as “thick air”.
However, there was another reason why pine cones and pine needles, along with various herbs and tree resins were burnt. Just as in antiquity, the burning of precious resins were a method of paying homage to the Gods; with it, the people could use smoke and fire to drive evil spirits away in their own homes. It’s absolutely true that the country at the time was profoundly Christian, but the old folk and their superstitions full of demons and mythical creatures continued to live on.
Besides, better safe than sorry; after all, you never know. Carved incense burners, however, were as practical to the residents of the Erzgebirge as they were to the Romans before them.

The image of the cozy pipe smoker

In fact, the smoker as a carved wooden figure only rose to prominence for the people of the Erzgebirge in the second half of the 19th century. In order to understand how it came about, one has to keep in mind the living situation of these people. They lived mainly from mining, the most important economic industry of the region. Ores were mined here, including a good deal of silver, though the primary export was tin ore, or ‘Zinnerz’ in German, hence the name Erzgebirge (Erz = Ore). In the winter months, however, the mining industry halted. The miners had no work and therefore no income. In order to secure their livelihood, they began creating the small wooden figures and various other items. What is now considered the folk art of the Erzgebirge people was created.

At the same time, in an era that was increasingly defined by the middle-class, the transformation of the Christmas festival and Christmas time were taking place. The season became more and more romanticized and was declared a family celebration. The carving miners took advantage of this and were responsible for crafting the decorations and art, from the arcs of light extending over the Christmas pyramids to the Christmas angels, that we still see today. Major centers of production such as Olbernhau arose, and the precious items were selling like hotcakes outside of Saxony as well.
The path to the figurines was not far. For the whole of the nineteenth century, the image of the pipe-smoking man stood for the feeling of home and, above all, coziness - precisely the qualities that are cherished in winter and at Christmas up to the present day. What could have been more obvious than to create a pipe smoker made of wood, which perfectly embodied these qualities and could actually smoke? With the invention of the incense candle, people could once again rely on the familiar – that scent of well-being; namely, the burning herbs, woods and resins.

Are Räuchermännchens a danger to your health?

A Räuchermännchen is a small hand-carved wooden figure, designed to burn incense candles. Especially in the cold season, and especially when Christmas is approaching, many people at home enjoy lighting up an incense stick or two. Every year, newspapers and various online media outlets put out reports stating that the burning of incense sticks is potentially carcinogenic. But is that really so, and what are incense sticks made of?

The dose makes the poison

The fragrances of an incense stick are spread throughout the room. This is done via evaporation and shortly before the rod burns, the fragrances are released. Doctors warn that fine dust can develop through the combustion process, which can get into the respiratory tract. Fine dust is not good to our bodies, as it can penetrate deep into the lungs, which in turn can be a possible trigger for asthma. Since incense consists of several ingredients which are mostly of organic origin, doctors assume that the resulting smoke could contain carcinogenic substances. As dramatic as this may sound, compared to what health risks we sometimes unconsciously expose ourselves to in everyday life, an incense burner’s danger to your health is negligible. After all, we do not breathe in the fumes every day, and even when incense is not actively being burned, the figurine still looks nice purely as a decoration and immediately conjures up a pre-Christmas mood.

Are children allowed to inhale the fumes?

Children especially love this pre-Christmas ritual, when the beloved figurine is brought out and lit and the smell is gradually distributed throughout the home; no one should have to do without this ancient custom. As long as you burn the incense in moderation, meaning not daily, and also properly ventilate after use, there should be no problems for your little ones.

How to best light the incense?

Smokers and incense candles from the Erzgebirge are still very popular, especially during the Christmas season. However, for some people, it may be unclear how smokers and other smoked products from the Erzgebirge are best placed and lit. We have written this little guide for those people, so that there won’t be any issues for someone who wishes to spread these lovely aromas throughout their home or office.

  1. Opening the Räuchermännchen: Before the incense can be burned, the upper half of the figurine should be screwed off to reveal the hollow inner portion. Now the incense candle should be put into its proper place.
  2. Next, the incense (or pyramid) should be ignited at the tip but blown out immediately. At most, a slight glow and smoke should be visible, but never a flame!
  3. If the incense candle glows accordingly and is securely placed on the plate provided for it, the smoker can be carefully screwed together again. If everything has worked, the smoke should now flow from the open mouth of the figure and fill the home with fragrance.
Although smoked products from the Erzgebirge are particularly popular during the Christmas season, they can be used at anytime, providing a safe, peaceful atmosphere for you and your family year-round.

How are Räuchermännchen made?

The Räuchermänchen belongs to the Erzgebirge’s tradition of craftsmanship, which is characterized by elaborately worked wooden figures and objects. To this day, the wooden figures are mostly constructed by hand in small factories. The heart of this folk art is the so-called "toy square", located in the city of Seiffen. Typical examples of this style of wood art are the nutcracker, Christmas angels, animal figurines and Christmas pyramids.
The smoker was born around 1830 and became part of the pre-Christmas tradition in the Erzgebirge. The wooden figure initially served to replace incense used in holy practices. The incense served to remind users of the three kings who gave the precious material to the baby Jesus as a gift. Since then, the Räuchermännchen, as well as the Christmas pyramids, candle arches, and Christmas angels have been part of an ensemble of traditional Christmas figures on display in the living rooms of the people of the Erzgebirge.

The classic figures represent the country-typical life from the Erzgebirge and usually depict professions such as miners, foresters, forest workers, soldiers and dumpling ladies. Also typical are groups of smokers depicting scenes from everyday life, for example Skat players. Apart from the standing figures, there are also the edgesitters which are placed on the edges of tables or other furniture. In addition, Christmas motifs, such as dwarves, snowmen and Father Christmas, are part of the smoker's family. "Turks" and "Indians", figurines consuming tobacco, were also included in the imaginative repertoire.
The Räuchermännchen is a two-part wooden figure, in which the upper part is hollowed out and tapers upwards. This small canal leads to the head, where a hole for the mouth has been carved out. On the lower part, a small incense candle is inserted and then covered with the upper part. When the incense burns, the smoke rises from its mouth. In order for the incense to burn properly and evenly, one or two holes at the lower back part of the figure are inserted to provide the necessary air supply.

The Räuchermännchen are carved from native wood varieties such as birch, maple, spruce, linden, alder or beech. A prototype is created before a series of Räuchermännchen goes into production. Eventually, there will be several templates created for later work pieces. Smaller components, such as pipes or head covers, are shaped with the lathe. To finish, the figurine is fixed on a base plate which provides the necessary stability. In the next step, the parts are painted. The coating of the small parts is usually carried out in a barrel, where the coating is uniformly applied. The individual parts are then glued together and finally the face and other details are painted by hand.
If you want to make the Erzgebirge Räuchermännchen yourself, you can also purchase kits. The set consists of carved, untreated wooden parts such as basic body, base, arms, legs, pipe and other characteristic accessories. After gluing, the parts can be painted individually. DYI fans can take advantage of those long winter nights and make the wooden parts themselves. Soft beech wood is particularly suitable for this purpose. If you do not have a lathe, you can use a carving knife, a belt grinder and / or a fretsaw. Use a drill for the canal. The head and other small parts can be purchased in a handicraft market.

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