Gröbenzell was first mentioned in a document in 1725. If you climb these stairs in the center of town to the top floor above the Alte Schule restaurant, then you immerse yourself in the relatively recent local history. On a Sunday there are Christmas cribs in the small but fine local history and peat museum. There are small, modern-looking variants with rounded lines and smoothly polished surfaces, but also large, elaborately painted figures and those on which the traces of the carving tool are clearly visible. In the middle are two figures in different stages of processing and next to a pencil sketch there is a clamped square piece of wood with the first traces of carving.
Here, in light corduroy pants, with a dark green velvet vest over the shirt – in everyday work, of course, more with a leather apron, a wood sculptor at work. To be more precise, in this case: a crib builder. Michael Jaumann, 58, shows in a seminar of the historical association of Gröbenkeepers how wonderful nativity figures are made from rough wooden blocks in many hours or even days, where the mechanical preparatory work ends and the equally creative and time-consuming manual work begins. About 15 visitors, including several children, are interested in the seminar.
The carving of nativity figures is a craft that goes back far longer than the history of Gröbenzell. Francis of Greccio is often mentioned as the first crib builder, around 1220 he is said to have made images of the Holy Family with the Christ Child as well as Mary and Joseph. Over the years, other figures such as shepherds or sheep were added to the Three Kings from the Orient, ox and donkey. On the website of the Kreutz wood carving workshop on Gröbenzell Kreuzbreitlstraße, you can read that cribs have been set up regularly in Italy since around 1550 in the run-up to Christmas. Since about 1600, this custom has also been maintained in many bourgeois houses in southern Germany. Michael Jaumann’s grandfather founded the workshop in 1945. His grandson still uses his flails and carving knives. They’ve got a good patina, feel good in the hand, and today’s steel is “a catastrophe anyway.”
For the native Gröbenzeller it is much more than a nice hobby, it is a job and a calling. Of course, he cannot live from carving such nativity figures alone. He also makes inscriptions, grave crosses and many other things that are made of wood. He is still supported in the family business by his 85-year-old father, his mother and his wife as well as temporary workers. There used to be up to 30 employees and eleven apprentices in the company. Nativity figures are experiencing something of a renaissance – young people in particular are therefore more likely to do business. But that doesn’t change the fact that the respectable craft of wood carving has become more of an “unprofitable art”, as Jaumann admits, without letting that deter him. You can’t do it without idealism. In his senior year there were 16 apprentices – “I’m the only one who has stayed in the industry to this day.”
He has never regretted it. You can tell when Jauman explains his craftsmanship. When he talks about wood, a material so versatile and always unique, with its veins and shades of color that change over time. For about a hundred years, nativity figures have been machine copy-milled, primarily from suitable and well-seasoned woods such as maple and ash, as the first rough replica of a clay or bronze model. Then comes the actual carving procedure. In such cases one speaks of “wooden carving”. In contrast to “hand-carved”, when the use of machines is completely dispensed with because of the soft material, as in the case of lime or pine. Figures larger than 40 centimeters are usually hand-carved from basswood. They are usually glued together from four individual parts. The seams can only be seen when looking at the stand side. The hands of the figures are also usually only used when the rest of the figure has already taken shape. If the figures are painted, the surfaces do not have to be treated quite as meticulously, in the case of clothed crib figures only heads, hands and feet can be seen anyway. The following applies to nativity figures: the unpainted figures, where the use of the carving tool is still recognizable, tend to be labor-intensive and therefore more expensive.
Jaumann shows a smoothly polished figure made of maple wood, which is available for 37 euros. And then one made of lime wood for 180 euros. However, this also involves a good ten hours of work. Jaumann therefore prefers not to calculate his hourly wages too precisely. A complete crib still quickly adds up to 800 euros. However, it is the same with the cribs as with the model railways: the appeal lies in the fact that the existing “installation” can be expanded with a piece of jewelery year after year. A crèche is never complete – as long as there is enough space in the apartment. “It has to grow,” says Michael Jaumann and smiles. He is prepared: 17,0000 nativity figures in all imaginable variations are in stock in his warehouse.
But the master of his trade is also happy when someone takes the time to carve themselves. However, such do-it-yourselfers should be at least twelve years old, recommends Jaumann. Because handling the sharp knives harbors dangers. Even some professionals are not immune to this, despite or perhaps because of their routine: scars on the thighs and forefingers are evidence of slips and are something like the unwanted trademark of a wood sculptor.
Something like a “test balloon” is the seminar offered by Michael Jaumann on carving nativity figures in the local history and peat museum. The historian Sven Deppisch, 40, was recently elected chairman of the Gröben guardians in the course of the generation change and wants to “keep up the tried and tested but also break new ground” in the small museum run by his deputy Jaumann – and expressly also the younger generations – to bring their local history closer again after a two-year break due to corona. He “already has a few ideas in the pipeline,” says Deppisch. Seminars are just as conceivable as joint excursions. The message, especially for the approximately 180 members of the historic association, should be that you can “have a lot of fun” for a whole 19 euros a year.