Before the grand Tannenbaum, there was the Weinachts pyramide, or lightstock. This holiday tradition can be traced to Dresden, the largest city in the Erzibirge region of Germany, where in 1168 AD silver and tin were discovered. Hundreds of miners flocked to the Ore Mountains to make their fortunes. But foreign competition and warfare resulted in many miners losing their jobs. To compensate, many took up woodcarving, incorporating mining symbols and religious elements into their designs. Thus a reputation for intricate woodwork was established in the region.
In the middle ages Christians began associating the evergreen with Christmas, borrowing the symbol from the pagan winter solstice celebration. Bringing trees into their homes, villagers hung fruit and cookies from the branches to symbolize the fruits of redemption. At the same time, woodcarvers in the Erzebirge region fashioned the first lightstock, a pyramid-shaped stand made from 2-5 wooden rods and 3 shelves holding candles and Christmas-related figurines. Eventually someone thought to attach a pinwheel to the top of the central rod. The heat from the candles rose, rotating the pinwheel and the shelves. Small lightstocks (average pyramids stand about 50 cm) were placed beside Christmas trees in some homes, although many poor woodcarvers could not afford trees, and thus the lightstock came to be known as the "poor man's Christmas tree." Unlike the glass ornaments of Lausche, the lightstock was not originally made to satisfy customer demand, but was established first as a genuine folk tradition. Other seasonal objects fashioned by the woodcarvers of the Erzibirge region include schwiboggen, an arch-shaped candle holder that lights the windows during Advent; rauchermann, a wooden ornament shaped like a smoking man with a hollowed out mouth where incense is burned; and the popular nutcracker, inspired by the storybook on which Tchaikovsky's ballet is based.
Originally the candle-lit pyramid was a symbol for light, a prayer for the miners to return safely home from the danger of the mines. As it became associated with Christmas, the candles on the lightstock came to represent Christ, who is the light of the world.
Lightstocks gained popularity in Dresden and the surrounding villages, and multi-storied pyramids began appearing in town markets, as villagers competed for the best town pyramid. Lightstock shelves were filled with scenes illustrating their village's history, the story of Christmas, or other holiday themes. This tradition continues on today, and the world's tallest pyramid stands in the Striezelmarkt in Dresden.
The Christmas tree tradition was not accepted by Americans until much later, brought by Hessian soldiers fighting in the Revolutionary War and later by German immigrants. But it is said that in 1747 in a church colony in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, German settlers displayed wooden pyramids covered with evergreen branches and decorated with candles.
Lightstocks are available today in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and are the continuation of a tradition over 300 years old.