The German Nussknacker (Nutcracker) is a timeless symbol of the Christmas season. Originating near the Erzebirge regions of Germany, decorative Nutcrackers in the form soldiers, knights, and kings have existed since the late 17th century.
A close cousin to the Nutcracker is the Räuchermänner. Commonly known as “Smokers” or “Smoking Men”, Räuchermänner are similar to Nutcrackers in that they are both colorful, carved wooden figures and both originate from Erzegebirge. However, instead of cracking nuts, Räuchermänner are used to burn incense known as Räucherkerzchen. Literally meaning "little smoking candle", a Räucherkerzchen is a small cone of incense burned at Christmas time.
The emergence of Räucherkerzen goes back to the use of frankincense in Catholic liturgy. The Räucherkerzchen are made from the resin of the frankincense tree, mixed with charcoal, potato flour, sandalwood and beech paste. The substances are ground and mixed into a moist dough, then shaped into a cone and dried. Räucherkerzchen come in a wide variety of fragrances ranging from traditional Christmas scents like, frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, and balsam to the more exotic like sandalwood, honey, and others.
Unlike Nutcrackers, which tend to represent political, military, or religious figures, Räuchermänner traditionally resemble common folk such as: shepherds, farmers, bakers, carpenters, chimney sweeps, and other tradespeople. Over the years, these figures have evolved into a wide variety of styles. Today Räuchermänner can be found in all sorts of variations, especially Christmas themes such as Santa Claus, Elves, and Snowmen.
The Räuchermänner is made up of two pieces that fit together to create one body. The upper part of the body is hollow so that an incense cone can be placed on top of the lower half of the body. When the incense is lit, smoke then billows out of a hole carved in the mouth to resemble a man smoking a pipe.
Its nostalgic charm has made the Räuchermänner a Christmas tradition in Germany for hundreds of years. Unlike their Nutcracker cousins, who are often depicted as bearish and grim faced, Räuchermänner seem friendlier; almost jovial. But perhaps what has made the Räuchermänner so popular is that these little wooden figures represent the work of the common man.