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Business

Germany's No. 1 Address for Christmas

Old Europe meets Santa’s Workshop: Käthe Wohlfahrt’s Christmas Village in Rothenburg ob der Tauber gives lovers of traditional German Christmas something to look forward to year round.

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Käthe Wohlfahrt's Christmas Village in Rothenburg

As early as springtime, they arrive; first in a trickle, then a steady stream, and then, toward Christmas, a flood. They come from as nearby as Switzerland, as far away as Japan. They are lovers of Christmas decoration as only the Germans can do it: nutcracker-soldiers and music boxes, hanging glass ornaments and nativity figures, all of it handmade and hand-painted.

They come looking for their mecca, and they find it, open 12 months each year: Käthe Wohlfahrt’s Christmas Village.

The name Christmas Village is more than just a clever title. The interior of the store is actually built to resemble a Bavarian village square, with stalls decorated as typical snow-covered, half-timbered houses surrounding a 16-foot-tall Christmas tree. Stars twinkle overhead as visitors stroll cobblestone “streets.” A 12-foot-tall nutcracker-soldier stands guard at the doorway to the village, an acquiescent photo-op companion for any and all.

In its quaintness, the Christmas Village (decorated with more than three miles of Christmas garland and over 80,000 artificial lights) offers up heavy competition to the astonishingly preserved medieval town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, itself one of Germany’s top tourist destinations.

A hand-crafted music box

In some parts of the world, of course, a shop dedicated to selling Christmas wares year round may seem old hat. (In the United States, for example, such stores have been around for a good two decades.) But in Germany, where traditions run deep, Christmas decorations are on the shelves from late November until Dec. 24, and as a rule cannot be had again until the following year.

This was the situation in the early 1960s, when the Wohlfahrt family was celebrating Christmas with American military friends. The Americans fell in love with one of the Wohlfaharts’ own beloved family keepsakes, a hand crafted Christmas music boxes from the Harz Mountains. Asking around, the Wohlfahrts were told it would be impossible to get another one until the following spring, and then they would have to buy at least ten of them.

The Japan connection

They bought it, eventually gave the gift, and sold the rest to American soldiers’ families stationed nearby. Thus the year-round Christmas Village concept was born.

Now, clients come not just from America, but from around the world. They snatch up the company's hallmark decorations to the tune of close to €20 million a year.

Ironically, many of the Wohlfahrt’s clients are Japanese, despite the fact that the overwhelmingly Buddhist and Shintoist country doesn’t celebrate Christmas as it is known in the west. But as with other western traditions, Christmas decoration is beginning to seep into the Asian culture.

Emi Kanazawa, a Japanese who lives in Germany, works at Wohlfahrt, mostly serving Japanese customers. In Japan, she says, “(Dec. 24) is a normal workday. Only some families with small children celebrate at home, make a good meal and the kids get presents.”

Adds company spokeswoman Felicitas Höpner: “The Japanese come to Rothenburg because they find the medieval village typically German. They come to the Christmas Village because they like to decorate. They see that in Germany people decorate for Christmas, that it’s special.”

She notes that the Japanese clients are especially drawn to Wohlfahrt’s hand-painted wooden articles due to the quality of craftsmanship – a point of pride with the 200 person, family-run company. Wohlfart has its own design workshop, where everything from rosy-cheeked wooden incense-burning Santas known as “Knoddeln” to limited-edition porcelain angels is designed. Thereafter, “the production is given over to traditional craft-making firms throughout Germany,” Höpner explains.

Mom-and-pop empire

“Made in Germany” is an important phrase for the Wohlfahrt company: “Quality for us means that our products are … made by German companies. We control to make sure the craftsmanship is first class… For example, the painting should be right there where it belongs -- not like in many things that are made cheaply in the Far East, where one eyebrow is a half a millimeter higher than the other.”

Despite its tradition, Wohlfahrt’s is anything but your typical mom-and-pop store -- more like an empire. A brief look at their Web site (you can also order from an online catalog) shows that Wohlfahrt runs seven stores in Rothenburg alone, all honing in on a slightly different segment of the souvenir market. There are six more stores in Germany, located in tourism hot spots such as Oberammergau, Garmisch Partenkirchen, Heidelberg -- and Christmas über-Mecca Nüremberg.

And the company has reached further afield, to quaint tourist towns in Riquewihr (Alsace), France, and Bruges, Belgium, as well as making an appearance at the Christmas markets this year in Florence, Italy, and Osaka and Sapporo, Japan.

Its popularity world-wide notwithstanding, it seems Wohlfahrt hasn’t forgotten its roots or the first music boxes it sold to American military families. In 2001, the company opened its first store in the U.S., located in Stillwater, Minnesota. And holders of military ID cards can get Wohlfart goods at four military-base stores in Germany.

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