Like many German Christmas decorations, the Schwibbogen came from the Erzgebirge. Beginning in the Middle Ages, the Mettenschicht, became the traditional last work shift before Christmas in the Ore Mountains. The foreman ended work early by knocking on the walls (time to “knock off work”). Miners of the Erzgebirge would gather in one room and hang their pit lanterns along the arch of the pit opening, or in an arc on the wall deeper in the mine. The foreman then lead a special Christmas Service, and simple communal meal was served. The Miners may not have had soaring cathedrals, but this extra light in the darkness underground was a beautiful substitute for workers on this holy night. The tradition of Schwibbogen, or German Christmas Light Arch, came out of this mining tradition. A tradition born underground in the Ore Mountains, that spread across the world.
What is a Schwibbogen
Simply put, a Schwibbogen is a candle arch. The word Schwib is an architectural term for a suspended arch between two walls, and bogen is an arc or bow. The candles along the top represent the pit lanterns that miners would carry into the mines.
Originally, they were made of iron, so they could be carried into the mines. Today they are more commonly made of wood for household use. And although you can still buy them with candles, today it is more common to find them lit with LED lights.
Schwibbogen are usually set on a window ledge so they can be enjoyed from outside as well as indoors. Although larger ones may be placed outside
History of the Schwibbogen
Johannes Teller, a mining blacksmith in the Erzgebirge is thought to have designed and fashioned the first metal Schwibbogen in the early 1700s. At the time his town, Johanngeorgenstadt, mined silver, tin, and iron (and later, when it was part of East Germany, they would mine Uranium). Today, the mines are played out, but the town is still known as the Schwibbogenstadt or Schwibbogen City, and there you will find the oldest example of an iron Schwibbogen, made by SF Teller (Johannes’s descendant?) which dates back to 1778.
Originally, the Mine Blacksmiths would create Schwibbogen as a gift for the mining guilds. The smiths would work on them all year, fashioning them with different symbols like the moon and stars, or the sun and religious motifs, all under an arch of candle holders. Before Christmas, they would be brought into the mines for the Mettenschicht. By the 19th century, mining motifs were added to to the symbols, along with other professions of the Erzgebirge.
Credit for making the Schwibbogen a symbol of the Erzgebirge goes to German book illustrator Paula Jordan. In 1937 she presented a design for a large scale candle arch at the Feieromd Exhibition in Schwarzenberg. Using her plans, Kurt Teller and Max Adler built this massive 7 meter wide, 4 meter tall Schwibbogen that was even lit with gas lights! You can see the crossed swords, and figures that represent minors and toymakers in the Ore Mountains. Today this Schwibbogen shows up everywhere!
A small recreation of Paula Jordan’s large scale Schwibbogen that became the symbol for the Erzgebirge
That same year, Max Schanz built the first wooden Schwibbogen at the Seiffen Toy College. This one featured Seiffen’s famous round church. Toymakers and Christmas Decoration carvers added Schwibbogen to their repertoire, carving out figures with a jigsaw.
By the 1990s, Light Arches were a common German Christmas Decoration. The wooden arches were lit with either candles or electric lights. The symbols and figures under the arch changed with the times. Today you find snowmen and animals, St Nicholas and forest scenery, Houses and city churches. There are even Schwibbogen with SKIERS swishing down the mountains!… the only limits seem to be with the imagination of the designer. Despite this, the original Erzgebirge designs, the Miners, and the Seiffen church are still popular motifs in Schwibbogen.
German Christmas Market stalls have an incredible selection of modern Schwibbogen, something for everyone.
Click here to find a large selection of Schwibbogen for your home.
Light Against Pandemic Lockdown
When Covid-19 caused lockdowns in March 2020, a call went out from the Erzgebirge to light Schwibbogen between 9 Pm and 11PM nightly. Much of Germany participated in making light against the darkness in a difficult time. The Schwibbogen, the special light stand that gave men who work underground so much hope, would now symbolize togetherness to the world above.
Whether you set yours in the window for Christmas or for a year round symbol of togetherness, a Schwibbogen is certain to bring delight to all who see it.
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