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Pyramiden
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What is a Christmas pyramid?

What would Christmas be without the traditions and festively decorated villages, houses and apartments? Although designs vary from region to region, the Christmas pyramid, the candle holder, the Räuchermännchen, the nutcracker and many others are a common sight during the most wonderful time of the year.

The Erzgebirge (Engl. Ore Mountains, located in eastern Germany) is known as "Christmas Land". With loving and detailed craftsmanship, the various carved, laced and hand-crafted products are put on display for the world to see. Seiffen, as well as Olbernhau, Marienberg, Schwarzenberg, Schneeberg and Annaberg, are among the main centres for the wood and folk art of the Erzgebirge. The Seiffen church in the original is the model and "template" for the design of Christmas pyramids.

The history of Christmas pyramids

"Light stands", made of three or four bars which were grouped at the top and in the middle, have existed since before the 18th century. The candles made the aesthetic of moss or coloured paper appear even more beautiful. The people of this mining region made these imaginative handicrafts, doing their best to improve their lot, as their sparse incomes usually meant a difficult life. If a miner could no longer be employed underground due to health reasons, desperation often led to creativity. With the miner’s handcrafted pyramids and carvings, the family, including the children, travelled from place to place hoping to earn a bit of Christmas money by showcasing their wares.

The four to five storey high pyramid was a representation of the entire mining industry. They were unique works of art known to have decorated the banquet tables of princes since the 16th century. This multi-storey showcase was an early form of today's Christmas pyramid.
It was very probably a resourceful miner of the Erzgebirge who first placed a horizontal wheel on a vertical spindle. The heat rising from burning rapeseed lamps or candles caused the impeller wheel to rotate with the spindle and the base plates. It was the birth of the Christmas pyramids.
Another technical template was the horse mill, which was an important device used in ore mining. Its construction resembled a pyramid. The third construction element - the wind wheel, a children's toy, or the sails of a windmill were certainly inspirations for the wooden pyramids.

Building a Christmas pyramid

Today, a distinction is made between single-storey and multi-storey pyramids. There are small and large bar, tower or horse mill pyramids. Whether for mounting on the wall, hanging from the ceiling, standing on the table or as miniatures, Christmas pyramids are available in a variety of shops and not only produced in Seiffen. There are no limits to the varieties of pyramids.
Originally, carved figures were placed on the individual plates of the pyramid, depicting the typical life of the residents, miners, as well as local events in the Erzgebirge. Only later did the actual Christmas story, the birth of Christ, come to be a part of the tradition.

This Christmas light carrier, whose candles create a warm atmosphere, both literally and figuratively, are enchanting to everyone, young and old. In the middle of the twentieth century communities came together to construct meter-high pyramids which were erected in public places, such as the market, in front of the town hall or school, in the towns of the Erzgebirge. An electric power source and electric lighting are customary for the external aesthetic.

The Christmas story is usually depicted in the four floors - from bottom to top. The birth of Christ in the stable of Bethlehem, the three kings, the shepherds with their sheep, and an angelic throng as the crown.
Whether the pyramid gets its power from tea candles, an external heat source or an electric motor, one thing is certain: year after year the pyramid delights its audience. The coming and going of the characters captures the imagination.
The love of the homeland and tradition is powerfully expressed in the Erzgebirge "Heiligobnd Song", written by Johanne Amalie von Elterlein:

"It’s hard in the Arzgebirg
When it's stormy outside and snowing,
But even so when pyramid turns,
All our hearts are glowing. "

By the way: in "Seiffen" and other places in the Erzgebirge, the "Christmas pyramid" turns all year round.

What is a Christmas pyramid?

What would Christmas be without the traditions and festively decorated villages, houses and apartments? Although designs vary from region to region, the Christmas pyramid, the candle holder, the Räuchermännchen, the nutcracker and many others are a common sight during the most wonderful time of the year.

The Erzgebirge (Engl. Ore Mountains, located in eastern Germany) is known as "Christmas Land". With loving and detailed craftsmanship, the various carved, laced and hand-crafted products are put on display for the world to see. Seiffen, as well as Olbernhau, Marienberg, Schwarzenberg, Schneeberg and Annaberg, are among the main centres for the wood and folk art of the Erzgebirge. The Seiffen church in the original is the model and "template" for the design of Christmas pyramids.

The history of Christmas pyramids

"Light stands", made of three or four bars which were grouped at the top and in the middle, have existed since before the 18th century. The candles made the aesthetic of moss or coloured paper appear even more beautiful. The people of this mining region made these imaginative handicrafts, doing their best to improve their lot, as their sparse incomes usually meant a difficult life. If a miner could no longer be employed underground due to health reasons, desperation often led to creativity. With the miner’s handcrafted pyramids and carvings, the family, including the children, travelled from place to place hoping to earn a bit of Christmas money by showcasing their wares.

The four to five storey high pyramid was a representation of the entire mining industry. They were unique works of art known to have decorated the banquet tables of princes since the 16th century. This multi-storey showcase was an early form of today's Christmas pyramid.
It was very probably a resourceful miner of the Erzgebirge who first placed a horizontal wheel on a vertical spindle. The heat rising from burning rapeseed lamps or candles caused the impeller wheel to rotate with the spindle and the base plates. It was the birth of the Christmas pyramids. Another technical template was the horse mill, which was an important device used in ore mining. Its construction resembled a pyramid. The third construction element - the wind wheel, a children's toy, or the sails of a windmill were certainly inspirations for the wooden pyramids.

Building a Christmas pyramid

Today, a distinction is made between single-storey and multi-storey pyramids. There are small and large bar, tower or horse mill pyramids. Whether for mounting on the wall, hanging from the ceiling, standing on the table or as miniatures, Christmas pyramids are available in a variety of shops and not only produced in Seiffen. There are no limits to the varieties of pyramids.
Originally, carved figures were placed on the individual plates of the pyramid, depicting the typical life of the residents, miners, as well as local events in the Erzgebirge. Only later did the actual Christmas story, the birth of Christ, come to be a part of the tradition.
This Christmas light carrier, whose candles create a warm atmosphere, both literally and figuratively, are enchanting to everyone, young and old. In the middle of the twentieth century communities came together to construct meter-high pyramids which were erected in public places, such as the market, in front of the town hall or school, in the towns of the Erzgebirge. An electric power source and electric lighting are customary for the external aesthetic.

The Christmas story is usually depicted in the four floors - from bottom to top. The birth of Christ in the stable of Bethlehem, the three kings, the shepherds with their sheep, and an angelic throng as the crown.
Whether the pyramid gets its power from tea candles, an external heat source or an electric motor, one thing is certain: year after year the pyramid delights its audience. The coming and going of the characters captures the imagination.
The love of the homeland and tradition is powerfully expressed in the Erzgebirge "Heiligobnd Song", written by Johanne Amalie von Elterlein:

"It’s hard in the Arzgebirg
When it's stormy outside and snowing,
But even so when pyramid turns,
All our hearts are glowing."

By the way: in "Seiffen" and other places in the Erzgebirge, the "Christmas pyramid" turns all year round.

Table of Contents

How a Christmas pyramid works

Basic construction of Christmas pyramids

Each Christmas pyramid basically consists of three parts: base plate, frame and shaft. The base plate and the frame are rigid, while the shaft on which the plates with the figures and the impeller wheel are mounted can be freely rotated on a bearing made of ceramic or glass. The base plate is the relatively massive base of the pyramid and gives it its stability. On it stands the often artfully carved frame, which consists of pillars or arches extending upwards; the intermediate levels, which gradually taper; and the upper bearings (one on each level and under the impeller wheel) of the shaft. The only exception are single-storey Christmas pyramids. In these, the frame usually consists of three or four half arches, which form a shape similar to that of a hanging dome, although slightly stretched. The bearing is where the half bows meet. The lowest bearing is part of the base plate. Except for the candle holders, the bearings and the hubs of the shaft, most of the Christmas pyramids are complete or almost entirely made of wood.

Functionality

In essence, Christmas pyramids function similar to windmills or wind power plants, except that the air moves from the bottom to the top and not horizontally. The candles, attached to the outside of the pyramid, depending on their size, are heated only on the lower or perhaps several levels. The molecules of the air (nitrogen, oxygen, noble gases etc.) receive additional energy and move faster and further apart. The density of the heated air compared to that of the environment becomes lower. As a result, the air climbs upwards and then encounters an obstacle: the blades of the Christmas pyramid. Since the blades are not parallel to the ground but slightly inclined and can only be moved laterally, the ascending air pushes the blade away and to the side even though the force is directed upwards. In addition, similar to the wings of an airplane, a negative pressure is created behind the blade, which has the same effect on the blade as the air rising from below: the upward force actually pushes it to the side. The impeller wheel begins rotating and the shaft transfers this movement, causing the plates to rotate. The wooden figures typical of the Erzgebirge on the plates now seem to be moving around. Then the holy family, the three wise men and the shepherds travel in the direction of Bethlehem. They try, at least, because for better or worse, they are running in circles.

Not perpetual motion machines

The candle holders must be located on the base plate and / or the frame. If the candles were on the plates, and therefore connected to the shaft, the air flow produced by the candles would be part of the movement system. For a mass to move, the mechanical impulse must be supplied from the outside, or from the mass itself onto the environment the mass is pushing against. The Christmas pyramid wouldn’t move if the candles were not fixed and the shaft were mobile.

What kinds of Christmas pyramids are there?

Chamber pyramids and large pyramids

One differentiates Christmas pyramids not only by design, but also according to purpose or exhibition location. The small candle-driven pyramids for the home are commonly referred to as chamber pyramids. In addition, there are large pyramids - either as fixed-location pyramids or on display at Christmas markets. The candles are replaced with electrical devices and the impeller wheel is driven by the wind.

Different surfaces

Actually, the term "pyramid" is a little misleading, because only very few Christmas pyramids are actually pyramids in the geometrical sense. Although there are Christmas pyramids with a square base, six-sided or octagonal base plates are far more common. Even completely round base plates exist. The construction of the frame and shaft in Christmas pyramids can also vary a lot.

Storey or stair pyramids

The most famous and common form of the Christmas pyramid is the storey or stair pyramid. It consists of several levels, into which the rotors mounted on the shaft have been countersunk, that taper upwards. Storey pyramids are more massive and stable compared to other types.

Rod pyramids

The rod pyramid has a frame consisting of struts extending from the corners of the base plate which meet at the upper end of the shaft, just below the impeller wheel and surrounding the upper bearing. Usually, these struts are straight and slightly inclined toward the center. Some rod pyramids also have curved struts, which form a dome-shaped frame or an arch shaped frame. Rod pyramids are very well known to have some very artfully constructed varieties, designed to look like houses or Christmas trees, and can be rather massive.

Pyramid stands

Pyramid stands have no visible frame. Instead, a rod in the interior of a hollow shaft extends upwards from the base plate to a bearing below the impeller wheel. This type of Christmas pyramid is stabilized from the inside rather the outside, making the figures and plates more visible and the pyramid as a whole is more extensive.

Tower pyramids

In simple terms, the tower pyramids can be thought of as a hybrid of storey and rod pyramids. The lower part of the tower pyramid is similar to the rod pyramid, but instead of reaching up to the impeller wheel and meeting it there, the struts of the rod end up in a small tower, which runs vertically upwards, similar to the uppermost plane of a storey pyramid. Either the walls of this tower are completely closed or the edges form arches between each other.

Horse mill pyramids

The horse mill pyramid is similar to the tower pyramid, but the upper part is designed like a horse mill instead of a tower. Most horse mill pyramids lean on a hoist frame, and the figures on the plates mostly depict mining scenes.

When and where did the Christmas pyramid begin?

At Christmas you can find Christmas decorations in many windows and houses, and the Christmas pyramids are no exception. These are often beautifully decorated and depict various scenes using wooden figures. The long tradition and origins of the Christmas pyramids date back to the Middle Ages. Then as today people were eager to alleviate the darkness of the cold months. While the inhabitants of southern and western Europe hung green branches, like those of the boxwood tree, the northern and eastern Europeans used light to fend off the dark.

In 16th century Germany light stands with up to four rods that were wrapped in green branches existed already. They were outfitted with lights on top to ward off the darkness. These are regarded as the ancestors of the famous Christmas pyramids.
In the region of Mark Brandenburg at that time, there were wooden scaffoldings in the churches during the celebration of the Christmas feast, whose slats became ever narrower towards the top and thus formed a pyramid shape. To this were added burning candles, as well as glittering decorations. There were special organizations set up who were responsible for decorating these pyramids and lighting the candles. Until the middle of the 19th century, the Berlin Christmas pyramid was a very popular version of this Christmas decoration and could be found in every household in Berlin. You could buy them at Christmas markets or make them yourself. It consisted of either a wireframe or wooden frame, which had the shape of a pyramid. The Berliners called the pyramid, which was decorated with fir green, a "Perjamide", "Märkische Pyramide" or "Perchtemite". The traditional Christmas tree, as we know it today, became popular in the cities only after the liberation wars (1813 to 1815).

The Erzgebirge as the birthplace of the traditional Christmas pyramid
As early as 1716, the term pyramid was used in Schneeberg to describe a lighted Christmas decoration used in the church. But this was probably a pyramid-shaped wooden frame fitted with candles.
It was the miners in the Erzgebirge who designed the somewhat more expressive version of the Christmas pyramid for the first time. The shape of the pyramids reminded them of her daily work and the horse mills. A horse mill is a device in which a horse is made to walk around in circles in order to power a machine or a conveyor. This contraption was especially useful in the mining industry and was used in shaft mines, where the mills were built next to the shaft house and were connected to it with a tent-like construction. By placing figurines in the pyramid, the basis for the models as we know them today was created.

A turning point in the Christmas pyramid production took place in 1830, when paraffin was discovered. The more costly tallow candles in use up to that point were no longer fit for purpose. From that point the Erzgebirge pyramids enjoyed a tremendous boom, and many different motifs and figurines were produced. There were even different styles of pyramids. Not only were there Gothic and oriental Christmas pyramids for purchase, but also elegant forest motifs and others. Figurines including forest animals and mountain parades were set up on the rotating plates of the pyramids, in addition to Christian scenes, such as the birth of Jesus.
Even in 20th century, the pyramids of the Erzgebirge were mostly produced as single pieces or as a miniature series. There were often very talented artisans who made an extra bit of money on the side by producing these pieces. Using the left-over wood from their main business, in 1900 the company C.L. Flemming from Globenstein was the first business to serial manufacture the pyramids. The marketing for the pieces was successful, with the Christmas pyramids being advertised in newspapers and by post.

Where and by whom are Christmas pyramids originally made?

The Erzgebirge in eastern Germany is not only a popular winter destination for skiers but is also home to a long tradition of wood carving. When the mining industry collapsed in 1900, many men lost their jobs and thus their means of subsistence. Eventually they turned to wood carving to earn a living. This is how a great variety of these carved wooden figures came into existence. The figures from the Erzgebirge are especially popular during the Christmas season. Places like Seiffen are especially prominent when it comes to the art of wood carving. There is a toy museum there, where angels, Räuchermännchen, Father Christmas, etc. can be found as exhibits. However, the wood carving art of the Erzgebirge is popular not just in Germany but internationally. Of course, cheap imitations from Asia can not keep up with the quality of the figures from the Erzgebirge.

Christmas pyramids

The traditional woodcarving of the Erzgebirge also includes many other objects, for example candle arches and Christmas pyramids. A pyramid carved from solid wood is available in various sizes. The smallest pyramids have only one level with two candles; the larger pyramids are arranged on three or four floors. On the various levels, many small wooden figures turn around in circles. The pyramid is driven by the heat of the candles, which moves a propeller. In many German Christmas markets, you often see oversized Christmas pyramids several meters tall standing as decorations or landmark. The famous Striezelmarkt in Dresden is one example amongst many. At many Christmas markets, you can find the wood figures hailing the Erzgebirge on sale.

How to make a Christmas pyramid yourself

Folk artefacts from the Erzgebirge, such as the Christmas pyramid or the candle arch are Christmas decorations, which create a peaceful atmosphere. How about creating a pyramid yourself? This is actually less complicated than you probably think.

Construction and material

For a little Christmas pyramid made of wood, you only need a few materials, a few tools and a desire to craft. The pyramid consists of a base plate, a plate, a bow and six blades, which are powered by tea candles. The arch is attached to the base plate and has a shaft bearing at the upper end and a glass bearing for the shaft guide at the lower end.

The following materials are required for the pyramid:

  • Blade holders: 300x6 beech post
  • Shaft: welding wire 250x3
  • Shaft bearing: ring screw 10
  • Shaft guide: glass bearing 8x5 diameter
  • Rotor head: beech wheel 40x15 diameter
  • Rotor head top section: Wooden ball 25 diameter
  • Shaft guide: two reducer sections 4/3
  • Tea candle holder: 3 candle nozzles made of metal
For the base plate, the plate, the bow and the figures, use high quality "B" cardboard plywood with a thickness of 5mm and 1.5mm for the blades.

Cutting

Attach your template to plywood with paper glue, and then cut out these pieces:

  • Base plate: circle 50mm diameter
  • Bow: quarter circle 170mm
  • Plates: circle 150mm diameter
  • Six blades: 11mm x 35mm
  • Figures: approx. 70mm x 40mm
The blades are 11mm wide at the top and taper up to 35mm. You will need to round off the corners of the wings somewhat. Then, for the blade holders, cut the beech log into six 5mm pieces. In order to be able to glue the blade holders to the blades later, flatten out the rods over a length of 25mm.
If you are making your own rotor head, drill six holes equidistant from one another into the edge of the wheel. Also drill a hole for the shaft guide into the centre of the wheel. Drill another hole in the centre of the plate and push the reducer section into it. That’s all the hard work done.

Assemble

Press the second reducer section into the hole of the rotor head and glue the wooden ball on the opposite side. Glue the blades to the blade holders. After drying, insert the blades into the rotor head and twist them to a 15 degree angle. Then insert the welding wire into the reducer section of the rotor head and screw the ring screw into the upper end of the arch.
Now mark the placement for the glass bearing and the bore for the shaft bearing on the base plate. Make sure that the positions of the shaft and glass bearing are on the same line. You can use a triangle ruler to help with measuring. If everything fits properly, file a notch for the glass bearing into the bottom plate and then glue the bearing firmly. Then glue the figures onto the plate and the capsules on the base plate. Now you just have to push the rotor with the shaft through the shaft bearing and the plate, and light the candles.


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