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Visiting the heartland of arched candle holders

Hardy Graupner
December 13, 2021

Germany's Erzgebirge region is known for its decorative arts tradition. The range of fine products is huge, but arched candle holders are special in their own right, as Hardy Graupner found out.

Arched candle holder
Johanngeorgenstadt is home to the world's biggest free-standing arched candle holderImage: Hardy Graupner/DW

A group of tourists to Johanngeorgenstadt in Saxony, Germany, are taking pictures of a huge decorative structure in the town center, zooming in on the various elaborate figures depicted under a big metal arch.

It's in the middle of the day, but it's easy to imagine that when night sets in and the electric candles on the structure are lit, they will cover the square in a warm and cosy light.

There's not much else this town is known for. A stone's throw away from the Czech Republic, it is a small winter sports resort, but above all it prides itself on being the place where the Erzgebirge's arched candle holders — known in German as Schwibbogen — originated from. And just to remind everyone of that, Johanngeorgenstadt is home to the biggest such candle holder in the world.

The tourists gathering around it on this frosty December day seem truly impressed. After all, the structure is 25 meters (82 feet) wide and 14.5 meters tall. The huge arch holds a set of big electric candles which light up various mining-related figures placed within the arch.

"I've been here before," says one of the visitors. "But every time I come it seems to me the candle holder has become even taller." His friend agrees. "It makes you feel so small if you stand right next to it," she says. 

Display of arched candle holders
Arched candle holders come in many different shapes and sizesImage: Hardy Graupner/DW

A deep-rooted tradition

Although the number of tourists here has gone down drastically as the fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic hit the hospitality sector, Germans' passion for arched candle holders remains unchanged.

For nearly everyone in the Erzgebirge region and for many beyond it, they area must-have Christmas decoration that is usually placed on a windowsill at home — to the delight of passers-by.

"Arched candle holders characterize the image of the Erzgebirge region like none of our other products," the head of the regional Association of Artisans and Toymakers, Frederic Günther, tells DW.

"Everyone can see them in the windows. And it's fair to say that they are ambassadors of our region and our products."

Arched candle holders in people's homes
Christmas wouldn't be Christmas in the Erzgebirge without the arched candle holdersImage: Hardy Graupner/DW

Ongoing debate over origin

But where did they really come from, and since when have they been in the region? Tom Pote, a hobby woodcarver from Johanngeorgenstadt, who takes a keen interest in the history of his town, has one hypothesis.

"The first arched candle holder was made in 1740 here in Johanngeorgenstadt by a blacksmith by the name of Johann Teller," he tells DW. "It was his way of saying 'thank you' to the miners he'd been working for. Ever since, such candle holders have been made in this town."

But it's unclear what inspired the shape of the arched candle holders.

An arched candle holder attached to a facade in Gelenau
The town of Gelenau boasts the world's largest arched candle holder attached to a buildingImage: Hardy Graupner/DW

"If you ask around what the original arched candle holders were meant to symbolize, some 80% of people will say the arch was modeled on the entrance of a mining tunnel," Pote says.

Yet he believes the shape was actually based on the arches featured in Johanngeorgenstadt's old church that was later gutted in a big fire. The maker of the 1740 candle holder no doubt went to that church and must have felt inspired by the arches in there, Pote insists.

Igor Jenzen from the Museum of Saxon Folk Art in Dresden has yet another version of what the arched candle holder may have been based on. He points to 1719 when local aristocrat Elector Frederick Augustus, the son of Augustus the Strong, married the Austrian emperor's daughter.

In a festive celebration lasting several weeks, many people, including miners from the Erzgebirge region, were treated to the sight of operas, masquerades and all the other trappings of a late baroque festival. There, they also spotted edifices put up for a big parade featuring arches that could have served as a blueprint for the candle holders.

Double-sided arched candle holder
Double-sided arched candle holders give the structures a 3D lookImage: Hardy Graupner/DW

Metal vs. wood

For centuries, the famous Christmas decorations were made of metal.

"Only in the 1940s they started making arched candle holders out of wood, and with it came a multitude of different motifs and scenes," Pote explains. "They sell better because they're usually less expensive, but both the wooden and premium steel versions exist side by side. The carved wood versions look better on the windowsill, while the steel candle holders are better outside as they do not rust."

There are many other woodcarving decorations from the Erzgebirge region that sell like hot cakes abroad - just think of wooden nutcrackers. With arched candle holders though, it's a bit different.

"Arched candle holders are mainly produced for the German market," Frederic Günther from the Association of Artisans and Toymakers points out.

"As far as the overseas market is concerned, there are some technical issues to consider with regard to different voltage in Germany and the US for instance, so not every model is available for both markets."

He adds that potential buyers from the US who visit the region have to be alerted that they also need different light bulbs for the candle holders.

Impact of pandemic on Erzgebirge producers and retailers
The pandemic influenced the business of local producers and retailers — 2021 is not much different

Pandemic fallout

During the coronavirus pandemic, both producers and retailers are keeping a close eye on domestic demand.

"Producers with strong collectors' items are doing good business online and are hardly affected by the restrictions. But for retailers with brick-and-mortar stores, the ongoing pandemic is a huge problem as tourists stay away," Günther says.

"And let's not forget that most Christmas markets in Germany were canceled at short notice this year. Many traders had already put up their stands only to find that the markets would not be allowed to go ahead, and no one is reimbursing them for their losses."

Edited by: Tim Rooks