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Culture

Germany Slumbers in Fairy Time Warp

Fighting for the rights of ceramic garden gnomes might sound downright bizarre. But it's no laughing matter in Germany, where the plump elfin figures are all the rage.

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Taking a break after watching over the garden

In the recent French film "Amelie", the capricious Amelie nicks her father's beloved garden gnome and packs it off with a friend who's a stewardess for an international airline.

The friend has the little bearded imp with the red pointy hat photographed against a backdrop of a host of world-famous sightseeing spots.

The puzzled and distraught father duly starts receiving postcards from his beloved by now jet-setting gnome and fears he's going out of his mind.

Bizarre?

Probably. But not as much as a recent Garden Gnome Congress in the east German city of Chemnitz which attracted thousands of garden gnomes of all shapes and sizes and along with them garden gnome researchers, -collectors and -lovers from all over Germany.

"More rights for garden gnomes!", "Longer sunny afternoons for Germany!" and "Peace in the front garden!" the gnome activists yelled.

Zwerg mit Schubkarre

Zwerg mit Schubkarre, handbemalt, Kunsstoff, wetterfest

Fight for legal gnome rights

If you think the Germans have truly lost their marbles, consider this: there are some 24 million gnomes scattered throughout Germany's gardens.

So, gnoming is not just some eccentric affliction, but serious business in German society. A visit to a typical German garden will confirm this. You'll almost inevitably stumble upon the stout elfin figure glowering at you amid the peonies and lilac bushes.

At the First International Garden Gnome Congress in Chemnitz, activists and gnome-lovers passionately debated the burning question of whether or not there should be female garden gnomes and the pro-lobby actually managed to get legal status for so-called gnomettes.

The Congress also gave legal backing to garden gnomes to ensure that they aren't left at their posts after 5 p.m. or exposed to the elements during the night.

Members of the International Association for the Protection of Garden Gnomes fighting for the integration of garden gnomes into society also want gardeners to be issued with lawnmower licenses to ensure the safety of gnomes.

Zwerg mit Lurchen

Zwerg mit Lurchen, auf der Mauer sitzend, handbemalt, aus bruchsicherem Kunststoff, wetterfest

Romantic and mysterious trappings

Just what is it about these colourful dwarves that gets hordes of people worked up and write petitions and fight for the rights of hardened vinyl figures?

Apart from the fact that these midgets were first invented in eastern Germany in the 1870s, many believe that there's a strong romantic association to the topic.

Gnomes hark back to the days of sagas and legends and almost all agree that they are strongly based on the most famous German fairy tale, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves".

In Germany especially hills and densely wooded areas evoke legends of dwarves, elves, and trolls. Myths of these figures from the fairy world and buried treasure are widespread.

Gnomes are believed to have originated in the several terracotta factories in the eastern German state of Thuringia.

The story goes that Philipp Griebel and August Heissner fashioned these figures after Griebel visited nearby mines and saw stooped people working in the cramped mines. That sight coupled with his avid reading of local tales and legends led to the creation of the gnome.

Around this time in 1873, the gnomes made an appearance in the popular little garden plots or Schrebergärten. While the gardens and parks of the wealthy were adorned with ostentatious sculptures, the middle classes got themselves the industrious red-bonneted helpers to watch over their modest gardens.

Zwerg mit Lampe

Gartenzwerg mit Lampe, handbemalt, aus bruchsicherem Kunststoff, wetterfest

No laughing matter

While the phenomenon of garden gnomes may still be baffling to some, there are others who don't take kindly to gnome-ridiculing of any kind.

One of these is the Garden Gnome Liberation Front.

In 1998, the group was held responsible for a "mass suicide" of gnomes in the city of Briey in eastern France.

11 gnomes were found hanging by their necks under a bridge, their little bodies swaying in the wind. A letter found nearby explained, "When you read these few words we will no longer be part of your selfish world, where we serve merely as pretty decoration".

In 2000, the group stole 20 gnomes from an exhibition organised by Paris' chic Bagatelle gardens and demanded that "garden gnomes are no longer ridiculed and that they be released into their natural habitat."

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