The age-old art of handmade, glass-blown, and paper mache Christmas ornaments lives on in the village of Lauscha, in Germany’s ancient Thuringian Forest.
One of my favorite Christmas memories as a child was unspooling the tissue paper-wrapped silvered Christmas ornaments compartmentalized in cardboard boxes. The entire sensory experience still stirs my soul, starting with the anticipation of waiting at the foot of the attic ladder as my father handed down each ornament box. Invigorated by the scent of fresh pine, I sat at the Christmas tree, looping metal hooks on the silvered glass ornaments, admiring how the twinkling tree lights danced on their colored, mirrored surfaces.
In November 2021, I traveled to the source of my childhood fascination with glass-blown ornaments, to the cradle of the Christmas tree ball, the village of Lauscha in the Thuringian forest of Eastern Germany. This small village is home to generations of artisans crafting handmade, glass-blown Christmas ornaments recognized by UNESCO as “Intangible Cultural Heritage.”
For more than 150 years, the people of Lauscha have practiced this craft, passing on the skills and knowledge to successive generations. Glass making thrived in this region because the Thuringian Forest offered ample glassmaking materials, including wood to fuel the furnaces, quartz sand, and limestone. Lauscha glass dates back to the 16th century when Christoph Muller and Hans Greiner built the first glass factory in Lauscha, producing drinkware, tableware, and glass beads. Early Lauscha glass has a greenish tint resulting from the high iron content in the forest sand and an infusion of bubbles.
Today, people worldwide collect and treasure Christmas decorations from the Thuringian Forest, a region known as “Christmas Country.” The moniker originated as a tourism initiative to preserve, promote and cultivate the region’s traditional crafts.
As a Design Tourist, I learn about a culture through its legacy of art and craft and how people express their souls by creating things of beauty. I wanted to experience the passion and skill of Thuringia’s Christmas artisans, so I sought out local guides Roger Müller, owner of Krebs Glas Lauscha, and Lauscha Ambassador Rita Worm, to tour several glassblowing workshops. Müller says today, glass forms the basis of income for at least every second family in the community of around 4,000 inhabitants.
They introduced me to a fourth-generation glassblower who says it took him 20 years to perfect the craft he learned from his grandfather. He works by feeling the glass interact with the flame’s fluctuating temperature, turning and coaxing the glass tube over an open flame while blowing into the tube to shape it. Once the ornament cools and hardens, his wife hand-paints each glass-blown ornament in her “next door” workshop.
Glassblowing is delicate, an intuitive craft that demands perfect timing. It’s a dance between the glassblower, the flame, and the molten glass, as the artisan sculpts glass tubes into various shapes and designs. Mastering the skill takes years of training and practice demanding precision with little margin of error.
Next, I visit the glassblowing workshop of Krebs Glas Lauscha to learn how artisans create silvered glass ornaments using a technique developed in the 1860s. To mirror a glass ornament from the inside, the artisan dips it in a silver nitrate solution, then coats each ornament in lacquer to prime it for hand-painting motifs and designs. The Krebs Glas factory outlet, a few blocks away, is open to the public and offers more than 5,000 glass-blown ornament designs, many originating from the local workshop.
Lauscha glass Christmas ornaments became popular collectibles in the United States after Mr. F.W. Woolworth discovered the mouth-blown, hand-painted glass ornaments on a visit to Lauscha. In the late 1880s, he began importing the ornaments for sale in his chain of stores across the United States.
In 1923, Lauscha established the first arts and crafts technical school for glass teaching techniques that let the beauty of the material speak for itself. The Christmas craft industry thrived in the Thuringian Forest until World War Two broke out. With the division of Germany after the war, Thuringia became part of the East German Communist rule, which nationalized many of the region’s craft and glassmaking workshops. With the reunification of Germany in the 1990s, families sought to regain ownership of their factories and workshops, reestablishing Lauscha’s glassblowing industry.
To learn more about the history of glassmaking, I suggest visiting The Museum for Glass Art in Lauscha, which holds an important collection of locally made glass products and a historical overview of the craft.
While exploring “Christmas Country,” I stayed at the Boutique Hotel Schieferhof, with an eclectic story to tell through its decor and history. The hotel gets its name from the stone Schieffer, indigenous to the region. Husband and wife team Lutz and Rita Horn own the hotel in the heart of the Thuringian Forest. They purchased the stone and half-timbered slate house in 1994 and turned it into a boutique hotel that intimately connected guests. Every room tells a story through local art and craft objects and decor tied to a theme.
Next, I visit the village of Steinach to tour the Marolin Factory, makers of handmade paper mache Christmas decorations and figurines. Artisan Richard Mahr founded Marolin in 1900, naming the company after his secret recipe of paper mache that creates highly detailed and collectible figurines. The Marolin factory exists inside the Mahr’s original residence, which evolved over the past century to include a museum and store.
The family lost Marolin in 1972 when the Communist government assumed factory ownership and shut down paper machine figurine production. Today, Mahr’s descendants run the company after taking it back in the 1990s during the reunification of Germany and re-privatization of businesses.
I met with Richard’s great-great grandson, Christian Forkel, who now runs the company. Together, we toured the factory, which employs local artisans practicing the time-honored techniques of handcrafting paper mache figurines using Mahr’s original recipe. Craftspeople hand-pour the paper mache mixture that has a porcelain finish into molds. Once the figurine cures, artisans, by hand, smooth its surface, glue it together, then paint and glaze it. Each figurine takes a week to handcraft from the mold pour to the finished product in an intricate and laborious process. On the day I visited, several craftspeople were restoring 100-year-old nativity figurines from a church in Erfurt using the original molds. Today, Marolin makes more than 2000 figurine designs today, including its iconic nativity scenes and popular Easter Rabbits with removable heads to store treats.
Throughout my travels, I experienced a newfound appreciation and admiration for the passion and preservation of handcrafts in Thuringia that spark joy worldwide each holiday season. I return home, committed to making mindful decisions about the products I purchase, prioritizing products made with heart, hand, and meaning rather than mass-produced.
To learn more about Lauscha, visit https://www.lauscha-glaskunst.com.