Every Christmas, my sister’s godmother, resident in Wilderswil in the Bernese Oberland, sent a few figures of the Christmas Eve crib of the Huggler‘s sculpture in Brienz, in addition to the silverware gift. It started with Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child. Thereafter, the crib expanded year after year. The joy and excitement were always great. What figure would it be this year? A shepherd, a sacred king, a sheep family, a woman or a child who visited the Jesus Child? I still remember well the lovely camel of the Three Kings, while we unwrapped it. It had a red blanket on its back and a proud facial expression. All that was carved from wood.
For one hundred years the crib Christmas Eve has been produced and the figures still seem to be contemporary. In 1915 Hans Huggler-Wyss designed the first Christmas figures. He studied in Munich, where he developed the typical Huggler style, the flat cut which indicates the parts of the body. The figures remain unsanded after carving. Thus they receive the typical shape. This poses high requirement on the woodcarver, since each section must fit precisely. Til today, the figures are hand-carved according to Huggler’s models. With great care the style has been passed down from generation to generation. The role models of his models were the Swiss character types of the Bernese Oberland, where the company has its seat. Over the years, new figures were created, always in the typical style. First, a new character is outlined, then a template is created and a model produced at the belt saw. Thereupon this figure is carved according to the draft.
The most suitable lime wood for carving comes from local forests. It is purchased as a whole trunk, sewn up into smaller parts and then air-dried on the site. This way it is stored approximately for three to five years and every now and then it is restacked, so that the drying takes place continuously. A fortnight prior to processing the wood is taken into the house for acclimatisation.
Eight models are produced in a one single operation with the hand-held milling machine. They are carved by wood cutters into these beautiful figurines. By this working method the wood is held in the carver’s hand and not put in a bench vice.
Six sculptors, their length of service nicely spaced between 3–43 years and two apprentices are employed by the company.
All figures may be carved by every sculptor, but everyone has his special fields and favourites that he likes to carve. With 43 years of service, Hanspeter Stähli is the oldest. During this long period he has carved the impressive amount of 95 289 pieces. Human figures are his special field and his favourite is King Melchior. Hampi Shield has a three years’ service and his special field is the milling. His favourite is the shepherd with the sheep on his shoulder.
All woodcarvers also design regularly new figures, which are taken into the production. Thus, over the years more than 120 different figures for the Christmas Eve crib came into being. Joseph and Mary are available in six different versions: standing, kneeling, praying, or riding. One can also choose between two versions each of the three kings. This way every crib is unique. Generally, the figures should be selected strictly on the spot, since every figure as well as every facial expression differs because of the hand carving, although it is worked according to the same templates.
The apprentices’ training takes four years. It includes human and animal figures and ornamentation. The apprentices do help with the production in the factory. One half of the hundred or so personal tools a woodcarver needs are given to him by the factory, the rest he has to acquire himself. A good light is needed at the woodcarver’s workplace as well as space for the many tools and the template of the workpiece.
Most of the figures are still painted with wood stain after carving. This work is performed by Franziska Venrath. She is a designer. The mixing ratios of the colours are always the same and are manually recorded in a folder. There are nine basic colours. In addition to red, blue, yellow, black and white there are some brown shades. The composed colours are preserved in jam jars and reshuffled again according to the information from the folder only when needed. Apart from these requirements a good sense for colours is needed. The white colour has a varnish, because otherwise it would not cover the timber. Over the years, the colours were purchased from the same supplier with consistent quality. This company has gone bankrupt now, a new supplier had to be searched. The colours must gradually be checked now and the mixing ratios controlled, so that no loss can occur.
All carving and colour samples are clearly arranged and individually stored in cardboard boxes on a huge frame or in drawers. This way they are ready for production at any time.
The figures are always produced in a small series, since the milling machine can make eight templates in a single operation. For the eight pieces the milling needs approximately two hours, the carving of a simple figure, 1.5 to 3 hours. Large pieces may take two to three days.
Painting takes 10 to 30 minutes. Since everything is handmade one can calculate that the figures have also a reasonable price. The sale takes place mainly in Switzerland, but cribs have also been sent to the whole world.
in the direct vicinity of the beautiful lake in the Bernese Oberland
The production, that is the milling machine, the carving and the painting studio are located approximately 300 meters away in the village. However, in the back room of the store there are two places for carving, where most of the time a wood carver and an apprentice work so that customers have the opportunity to watch the production.
The Huggler company produces several different cribs, the crib Christmas Night with approximately 14 cm in height is the oldest and most popular, since it has the ideal size for a living room. Palestine with 12 cm in height is somewhat smaller and the crib Christmas with 22 cm is slightly larger. The crib Noel is modest, its faces are not carved in detail and not painted. The crib Candlelight is more modern and the Navidad is well suited for churches with its 41 cm in size.
Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child may be purchased in a beautiful wooden box. Every year after Christmas, the crib is enlarged by one or a few characters.
The assortment of the Huggler’s sculpture also includes Swiss costume characters, Alpine processions, animal figurines, ornaments and sacred sculptures.
At any rate, to take a trip to the Bernese Oberland on Lake Brienz and the store of the Huggler company is worth it or, at a pinch take a look at their website www.huggler-woodcarvings.ch.
The traditional Huggler company has existed since 1900. That it exists until today, is the result of high quality and solid work.
As one might suspect, the main market is not, foreign tourism, but Switzerland itself. That is because each figure tells about the love for the craft and the careful work. •
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