The word “Heimat” has a special meaning for me and many people in Germany, as it represents the area where we grew up, with all our personal experiences, memories, values, traditions and people. My Heimat is at the foot of the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) in the Eastern part of Germany.
The Erzgebirge is famous for its longstanding mining tradition. In 1168, the first silver ore was found near today’s Freiberg. The mining industry in this area produced silver and iron ore as well as lead, cobalt, nickel, zinc and uranium until the end of the 20th century.
The job of the miners was very hard. Working hours were incredibly long and the work was intensely tough, as they faced life threatening conditions hundreds of metres below the surface.
As winter approached, it got even tougher, as the miners would not see daylight for weeks and months, leaving their homes in darkness in the early morning and returning home after sunset. It is, therefore, understandable that these miners had a natural and strong longing for (day) light as a symbol of life, safety and hope.
The pay was meagre and the miners and their families did not have much to live on. Their wives had to contribute by creating lace textiles, made by braiding and twisting lengths of thread wound on bobbins (“klöppeln”). During the 18th century, this handicraft became an industry in itself. It was estimated that more than 15,000 women earned extra money this way.
Yet, there was never enough money, and so, the women created a remarkable tradition, which is known in the Erzgebirgs-region as Hutz’n. Literally translated, it means “moving closer together.”
To save money on coal, a group of women would meet up in one of their houses to work. Not only could they share heating costs this way, but it gave them the opportunity to chat away while creating their precious textile handicrafts.
The husbands would join them in the evenings and do some wood carving themselves. The warmth of the Hutznstube (living room), with its atmosphere of joking, chatting, sharing stories and singing together, helped the people of the Erzgebirge through even the toughest living conditions and coldest winters.
A wonderful example of people’s creativity is the Schwibbogen, translated as “arc-of-lights” and dating back to the 1740’s. Originally produced as a candle holder, the “arc-of lights” represents the miners longing for (day) light and would be put in the windows of the houses to help them find their way home after a long day of work.
At the same time, the candle lights symbolized that soon, they would be in a well-lit, warm and cozy place, where they were safe … where they would have a chance to rest and recharge before another day of gruelling and dangerous work in the darkness.
You can see the 3 key traditions of the Erzgebirge (s. above) reflected in the arc-of-light … with mining at the centre, textile handicraft on the left and wood carving to the right.
This year, like many of us, I won’t be able to visit my Heimat to celebrate Christmas together with my family and friends. It is a sad thing, but given the way COVID-19 has developed, we all agree it is the safer choice.
Despite this, when sitting at home in London and looking at our own arc-of-lights, a gift by very good friends (Thanks Katrin & Thomas!), I feel a bit like some of the miners in the Erzgebirge must have felt hundreds of years ago. Since the pandemic started, we seem to have entered a long and dark “winter” during which we have neither seen much “sunlight” nor some of the people important and close to us.
Our lives have been highly restricted and sometimes it feels as if we are marching through never-ending monotonous daily routines dictated by the pandemic. But we also seem to have magically found ways to not give up in the face of such adversity. Somehow, we have managed to carry the light of hope inside ourselves. Sometimes, this light has been strong and powerful. At other times, it has been only a flickering candle. But the light has been with us always, just as it was for the miners in the Erzgebirge centuries ago.
Looking ahead, we all know the road will continue to be bumpy and tough. But I strongly believe there is hope. Not only have we passed the shortest day of the year on December 21st with the days gradually getting longer again, but I can feel, that we all carry this light inside ourselves as a shared hope for a much better 2021.
The arc-of-light was created to help pull people through, when the world was at its darkest. This year may be very different from what is “normal”, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be special … maybe with a bit of extra time to take a step back, pause and rest, so we are ready to boldly go, full of energy and hope, into the new and better year, 2021.
And, in that spirit, I would like to wish you and your family a Merry Christmas … no matter how “normal” it will be.