The comforting scent of freshly carved wood enveloped me as delicate shavings drifted into heaps at the Seiffen Folk Art Workshop in eastern Germany. A craftsman coaxed outer layers of tapered blocks into perfectly rounded curls -- an artistic rendering of Christmas tree boughs. Clearly used to gawkers, he worked undisturbed while a nearby work station showed how expertly lathed wooden discs can be sliced like Bundt cakes, revealing wooden elephants, hippos and giraffes for Noah's Ark toy sets. A woman with red and green hair tackled the 135-step process of assembling and painting nutcrackers, which were invented in the neighboring town of Neuhausen.

While many of Germany's Christmas attractions smell of ginger and cloves, chocolate and mulled wine, here there's a crafter's perfume of fresh paint, pine, shellac and sawdust.

Kasey and Beth Schnitker from St. Cloud, Minn., were likewise transfixed watching the craftsmanship, especially the spanbäume -- the wooden trees with perfectly curled branches left natural, needing no embellishment of color.

"You can spend three hours in one small shop with hundreds of ornaments," said Beth Schnitker, who heard about Seiffen while working at a U.S. Army hospital in Germany. "And the town is gorgeous."

While Seiffen's the epicenter for Christmas shopping with dozens of shops along its streets, there are more than 40 workshops, individual artists and many more stores throughout the region known as the Ore Mountains. It hugs the southern border of Saxony nestled along the northern Czech Republic.

The feeling of year-round Christmas is so pervasive that the only thing missing is a way to cue a snowfall like the shake of a snow globe.

Call it Christmas Central

For more than a century, local crafters have shipped nutcrackers, Schwibbogen candle arches, windmill-topped spinning pyramids, incense-smoking Santas and other wooden characters with "echt Erzegebirge" stamps of authenticity to Germany's Christmas markets. They line illuminated, open-air stalls in Saxony's Dresden, Bavaria's Nuremberg and others across the country.

Across the ocean, they make their way to Minnesota in New Ulm's specialty stores such as the Guten Tag Haus or Stillwater's Kathe Wohlfahrt shop, the one U.S. branch of the popular Christmas store that's based in Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

In the Ore Mountains, you can see the crafts being made along with the inspirations behind the ornaments' settings, characters and costumes.

The biggest surprise? Discovering the massive influence of miners.

Miners turn to woodworking

"Everything is still really related to the mining," said Anne-Kathrin Braun, a tour guide in Seiffen.

Ore Mountain villages mined ore, nickel, pewter and silver from the 1400s to 1600s, when rich veins wore out. Miners' hobbies of carving wood from surrounding forests gained importance as supplementary income.

Wooden angels holding candles represented miners' wives waiting at home.

Nutcrackers, now synonymous with Tchaikovsky's ballet and images of a soldier hero leaping across stages, were originally less highbrow and more nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Carved with the uniform of mining officers, they were a practical yet crude nod to nut-cracking authority figures.

Candle arches, which glow from Ore Mountain village windows throughout December, mimic the entrance to mines where crews would hang lanterns on the last shift before Christmas. Twirling ornate wooden pyramids, which spin with the heat from candles or lights, were based on a horse-powered rotating hoist that brought ore to the surface.

"The miners loved the light," Braun said, especially in the winter when they'd rarely see daylight. "That's why lights played such a huge role."

Shopping for heirlooms

I've wandered Seiffen's streets twice and got easily swept up in the hum of holidays despite being too early for the Nov. 25 Christmas market or the area's Miners' Parades, with locals dressed in vintage black mining uniforms.

Even on a balmy autumn day, you can wrap your hands around a steaming cup of tart cherry Glühwein (mulled wine), visit the octagonal hillside church depicted in ornaments and arches, and enjoy the glow from shop windows even though days have yet to darken and shorten.

If you happen to visit when the snow falls and the full spell is cast, it's even more irresistible. Temptations are everywhere, from quirky incense-smoking German barmaids and glossy high-end nutcrackers trimmed with fur to entire Christmas villages and intricate pyramids that rise 5 feet and command $2,000.

That can mean spending hundreds of dollars or much more on heirloom ornaments and decor, the Schnitkers said. Their advice: Give your credit card company an advance warning.

Toymaking traditions

Ore Mountains toymaking took off in the 1800s, when Christmas evolved into a gift-giving holiday. It didn't hurt that locally made Noah's Ark sets became Americans' holiday "it" toy. As one museum guide put it, they were the Sunday toy -- something kids played with in their best clothes with their best manners.

I strolled past replicas of miners' homes and early toy workshops at the Toy Museum in downtown Seiffen ( It's anchored by a 21-foot-tall pyramid and features two levels packed with cases of historic Noah's Ark sets, a Christmas village, hand-carved wooden chandeliers and miniature toys, matchbox-sized dolls and astonishingly detailed flowers.

In some ways, it was like viewing the glittering collection of Augustus the Strong's jewels and treasures in Dresden, an hour and 20 minutes to the north. Your brain hits overload in the amount of grandeur it can process.

Fortunately, it's also the kind of craftsmanship that requires no translation. While English brochures are in the works, Seiffen's museum, folk art workshop and stores cater mostly to German and European tourists.

Exploring the former east

In a region cut off by the Iron Curtain, older generations learned Russian rather than English and the villages are catching up 21 years after Reunification. That helps the area feel fresh and undiscovered, enticing to delve into other areas of mining heritage.

About 45 minutes north of Seiffen, Freiberg features a silver mine that can be toured along with the world's largest private mineral collection at Terra Mineralia ( The 3,500 minerals and gems from the Ore Mountains and across the globe opened in 2008 at Castle Freudenstein.

The heiress who collected the gems and minerals also donated more than 1,000 Ore Mountain toys and Christmas crafts, which have become the Manufaktur der Träume (Manufacture of Dreams) museum. It opened recently in Annaberg-Buchholz, a silver mining town an hour west of Seiffen.

The new museum has even more to see than the Toy Museum, with three floors and a balcony with picturesque views of the city. Exhibits include a 1,000-piece Noah's Ark set, model trains, villages, a hand-carved replica of miners' parades and a mechanical replica of a working mine.

It's just blocks along steep cobbled streets to reach Annaberg-Buchholz's grand Gothic church with elegant arches, an ancient altar with a hidden painting of miners and a pulpit with a sculpture of a miner.

I left the town marveling at the legacy of miners and toymakers. Ornaments will no longer be just nostalgic decorations, but symbols of how a yearning for light, warmth, laughter and loved ones carved itself so firmly into Christmas traditions.

Lisa Meyers McClintick is a St. Cloud-based travel writer and author of the upcoming iPhone app "Minnesota's Best Lakes Vacations." She blogs at