“I work on the cribs the whole year, so I can sell everything in the weeks before Christmas.” Ernst Kraus

“I make series of figures. So I would make 10 Josephs at a time for example, 2 per day approximately. It’s a lot of work.” Ernst Kraus

December is a month many people love in Berlin. True, it’s dark and cold, but the lights of the countless Christmas markets around town warm the hearts of many. Some of the retailers take a whole year to prepare for the December weeks. Ernst Kraus for example, a wood engraver travels to Berlin every year to sell his handmade wooden cribs. “I do this mainly for fun.”

You can’t miss Ernst when you stroll over Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt with your Glühwein. In one of the stands, he is working on his masterpiece of the year: a massive wooden deer. In the shop right next to him, he sells the wooden cribs and Christmas characters he made himself. “I work on this the whole year, so I can sell everything in the weeks before Christmas.”

Series of Josephs
Ernst is over 60, and has seen better times for wood artists like himself. Originally from the South of Germany, Ernst is the sixth generation of a wood engraver’s family. “In the past, there were 45 employees working in the workplace. Right now I am by myself and have some freelancers helping me out. Times have changed, there is simply not enough work for all of us.” His daughter is also in the business, she paints the figures he makes.

Freelance wood engravers help him make the wooden figures for in the Christmas trees and the characters for the Christmas cribs. Ernst: “I make series of figures. So I would make 10 Josephs at a time for example, 2 per day approximately. It’s a lot of work.” The fact that it’s all handmade and labour-intensive, is reflected in the price tags of the pieces. A Joseph will cost you 149 euros for instance.

Exotic Christmas
There are still a lot of people who are willing to dig deep in their pockets to get their hands of the handcrafted cribs. Ernst: “It’s mainly tourists who come to Berlin and spend all their money. It’s not unusual that people come in and spend 4000 euros on a crib.”

Cribs can look very exotic, it’s not just the normal Joseph and Maria figures you expect to stand next to a crib. Ernst added elephants, lions and other exotic animals. “That’s also part of the story, how do you think the Three Kings travelled? And these crib collectors are always looking for new things to buy, so these figures will meet their demands.”

People can also enjoy Ernst’ work outside of this shop. Right next to the enormous Christmas tree on the market, a real-sized crib is exhibited. Ernst made all the figures himself. “I like making the bigger figures. I am getting a bit older and my vision is not what it used to be. Smaller characters are getting harder for me to make. I like working on the big ones.”

Horse dealers
Ernst starts working on his wooden deer again, attracting the attention of many visitors. “I am making this for a hotel in Austria,” he says. “It takes me about five weeks to complete it. The basswood I use has been stored for ten years. The next step is gluing the pieces together to form one big block of wood. And then it’s basically cutting away the things you don’t need until you have what you want,” he smiles.

He adds: “I store the wood myself. Because you know, wood dealers are like horse dealers. You simply can’t trust them! A horse dealer would always say the horse is younger than he really is. You have to look into the horses’ mouth to see how old it is. Same goes for wood – that’s why I choose to store the wood myself.”

Not suffering
Wood pieces are flying around as tourists take pictures of the master at work. “It can get too crowded here,” he says. “Ten years ago, there were 250.000 visitors a year, last year we reached 800.000. In the evenings and weekends it’s simply too full, I can’t work then anymore.”

But all these visitors are good for his business. “The more people, the more buyers,” Ernst says. He points at his belly and starts laughing. “As you can see, I am not suffering!”

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