2 master cot builders from Salzburg & their craft

Christmas cot exhibition at the Advent market in St. Jakob am Thurn

by Barbara / 17. November 2022 / People / Tradition
Krippenbaumeister Agnes und Toni Höllbacher © TVB Puch - Gerber

From the hands of masters: a visit to the nativity scene builders Agnes & Toni Höllbacher.

One of the most popular Christmas traditions in Salzburgerland is to set up nativity scenes at home. On Christmas Eve at the latest, the lights shine not only on the Christmas tree, but also in the Christmas cots, most of which are homemade. Even children like to make nativity scenes out of roots, moss and pine cones during Advent or, like Agnes and Toni Höllbacher, they attend a nativity scene building course at one of the nativity scene building associations in Salzburg.

The two have already won several prizes for their masterpieces, which are exhibited daily in the Loretto Chapel from 1 Advent to the end of the year as part of the  Advent market in St. Jakob am Thurn. The nativity scenes are changed until the weekend and around 15 different nativity scenes are shown by them during Advent. From Christmas onwards, the large nativity scene can also be seen in the pilgrimage church, which Agnes and Toni restore again and again on a voluntary basis.

I visited Agnes and Toni for you, learned a lot about cot making and received many tips as well as new things. Read on to find out about a few selected exhibits and learn more about cot making in Salzburgerland!

Curious? At the end I will also show you my private Christmas cot, which I made at the same cot building course as Agnes and Toni.

Master cot makers with a passion!

As a lover of small things, traditional craftsmanship and Salzburg customs, it was a special pleasure to visit Agnes and Toni in my neighbourhood and get a glimpse into their great selection of alpine/domestic and oriental nativity scenes.

Zu Besuch bei Krippenbaumeister Agnes und Toni Höllbacher © TVB Puch – Gerber

After 12 years of building cots, several courses and a total of 30 self-made cots in various sizes and shapes, Agnes and Toni have been allowed to call themselves master cot builders for a few years now, not only in Salzburg, but also in Tyrol through further and special training! Not only are the cots made by hand, but also the background painting and the dressing of the cot figures are done by the hands of the passionate cot builders.

Krippenbaumeister Agnes und Toni Höllbacher © TVB Puch – Gerber

Since Agnes and Toni attend the courses together, they also have almost all the cots twice! The cots and backgrounds are created by each of them alone. As a trained electrician, only Toni is more responsible for the beautiful lighting of the cots and Agnes specialises more and more in dressing the figures. What still distinguishes the two is their preference for the style of the nativity scenes. Toni prefers to build alpine nativity scenes with farms, wooden huts and mountain landscapes and Agnes prefers to build oriental-style nativity scenes with columns, palm trees and buildings typical of the Orient.

How does one become a master cot builder?

The training to become a master cot maker in Austria takes four years and leads from a cot construction assistant to a cot teacher and course leader to a master cot maker in stages, after passing an elaborate master craftsman"s examination in practice and theory. The assessment and acceptance of the masterpiece is carried out by an independent jury of the Austrian Crib Construction Association.

In the theory, for example, you have to answer who Francis of Assisi was or what is the significance of a well or the bridge, which are hardly missing in a Christmas cot?

Toni explains to me that "a bridge symbolises the transition from the "old" to the "new" time, from the old to the new testament or from the old to the new year, whereby the well symbolises the ancient Jacob"s well as the "source of life". Francis of Assisi, on the other hand, lived in Umbria from 1181-1226 and built a manger in the forest in 1223, where he brought an ox and donkey to preach Christmas. This mass celebration is often seen as the origin of the Christmas cot."

For the practical examination, the subject or requirements are drawn at the beginning. After that, one has 40 hours in one week to create the nativity scene according to these requirements. It is specified whether it should be an alpine or oriental nativity scene, how many levels it should have, how large the figures are and instructions are given on the birth scene, buildings, terrain, setting and botany. Even though Toni had wished it differently, they had both drawn the brief for an oriental nativity scene. This work in the picture is Agne"s masterpiece:

Krippenbaumeister Agnes und Toni Höllbacher © TVB Puch – Gerber

Master cot builder to the power of 2

After Agnes and Toni had passed the Salzburg master cot builder"s exam after 4 years of building cots and a few hours helping out at the cot building courses, they kept going back to Tyrol to learn more and other techniques for building cots. There they completed weekly courses in "background painting", lighting techniques or "setting cots". By achieving over 100 points (approx. 5 to 30 points per course), they were ceremoniously awarded the "Tiroler Landeskrippen Moaster" in 2019. "This title is meant to be an award for the many courses and further training that many crib-building masters take on and do not want to stop," says the magazine from then Tiroler Krippen-Freunden.

Trioler Krippenbau Moaster Agnes und Toni Höllbacher © TVB Puch – Gerber

Things to know about Christmas cribs

But what are nativity scenes and why do we put them up at Christmas? Nativity scenes are a representation of the birth of Jesus Christ and the nativity scene depicts the central elements from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. As there was a ban on the public display of nativity scenes in Austria at the end of the 18th century and in Germany at the beginning of the 19th century, it led to "house nativity scenes" being set up in many private homes.

There are different types of nativity scenes and countless ways to build one. In addition to the Alpine (domestic) and Oriental cots already mentioned, there are also so-called box cots or diorama cots, you can put cots in a frame to hang them up, decorate them with snow or build them in a lantern. There are no limits to creativity.

Since I like to go to cot exhibitions, I have already seen quite a few. I could look at the homemade nativity scenes for hours and always discover something new about the figures or the construction. It"s the details that matter. You can also tell by the proportions whether someone knows their craft.

The cot with the mirror!

But what I didn"t know at all was a so-called mirror cot. When Toni showed it to me years ago, it took me a while to understand exactly what I was looking at. From the front, the mirror cot looks like a simple cot that was built into a box and just goes into the depths. But if you look more closely, you realise that the background is a mirror that is directed upwards towards the ceiling. But I only really understood it when he opened the back part of the cot and showed me that the background landscape was built onto the ceiling. The crooked mirror construction makes it look from the front as if the landscape is simply behind it. It"s amazing what possibilities there are for building a cot and how you go about it.

The setting up of the nativity scene

From when to when a nativity scene is set up depends on family or regional traditions. Many set up the cot on Christmas Eve, when the baby Jesus is supposed to be placed in the manger. In some places, the cot is set up at the beginning of Advent so that it can be enjoyed for a long time. If a manger is left standing for a longer period of time, the picture of the manger is often changed. For example, the search for a hostel is often depicted before Christmas and the Magi are not added until 6 January.

At home, the nativity scene is set up on 23 December at the earliest or only with the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, and every year at Epiphany it is almost always forgotten to add the Wise Men from the East with the camel and elephant.

Nativity figures: what to look out for!

The figures are an essential part of a Christmas cot! When creating a nativity scene, it is important to consider the size of the figures so that the nativity scene can be adapted to them and the proportions of the figures, stable and surroundings fit together. So always buy or build the figures first and only then start building the cot!

Agnes uses wallpaper paste and glue to create and restore the figures. The cloth is not just "put on" the figures but properly fixed with glue. The blanks with wooden heads, feet and hands are bought and then wrapped with fabric. To get the right posture, the figures are supported with wooden sticks until the clothes have dried.

Christmas crib figures made of corn leaves

A speciality from Agnes hands is this natural nativity scene with corn leaf figures. She also learned this technique in her own course and it is not often seen in our area. Unique figures are created from the husk leaves of the maize cob, also known as readies or maize straw. The leaves have to be well dried and stored in an airy place so that they can be processed well.

Maisblätter Figuren von Agnes  Höllbacher © TVB Puch – Gerber

Do you know the order in which nativity scenes are set up?

It is well known that Jesus, Joseph and Mary belong in the stable and that there are shepherds and kings, angels and sheep. But there is much more that should be taken into account!

Joseph on the right - Mary on the left

What I didn"t know is that you should also pay attention to a few things when setting up the figures. Or did you know that the figures should communicate with each other, that the view of the baby Jesus should be unobstructed and that the sheep should always be placed in groups and not spread out over the whole area. But most importantly, which I also never paid attention to: "Joseph, the donkey and the Magi stand to the right of the viewer, symbolising the pagan people. Mary, the ox and the shepherds are on the left side of the baby Jesus, looking towards the manger, and symbolise Christianity! The little child in the middle forms the centre and there should be nothing in front of it or behind it", Agnes and Toni explained to me when I wanted to take the wrong photo of the self-made figures.

Ox & Donkey

For us, an ox and a donkey belong in the stable and I would never have questioned whether that was really the case. Jesus came into the world in a stable and of course there are animals living there, which also give off warmth and for which straw and hay are also stored. However, they are not mentioned in the Gospels.

Krippenbaumeister Agnes und Toni Höllbacher © TVB Puch – Gerber

An angel must not be missing!

A Christmas cot always includes one or more angels. The angel is usually placed above the stable, e.g. on the roof of the house, and symbolises the angel Gabriel, who informed the shepherds about the birth of Jesus Christ and announced the good news. Usually the angels are dressed in white and partially gilded.

The Star

The star, often depicted as a star tail, shows the shepherds the way to the stable. It usually hangs over the stable and is also often illuminated. Like the baby Jesus, the star should not be seen in the manger until after the birth on 24 December.

Shepherds & Kings

The shepherds present the human race and embody the people in general. Usually three shepherd figures are depicted at different ages. The oldest shepherd kneels before the baby Jesus, the youngest plays a flute and the middle one carries a lamb on his shoulder. The three magi, stargazers, wise men or kings from the Orient with their gifts represent the different ages and at the same time the continents known in the Middle Ages.

Do you know what C+M+B means? It is not only the first letters of the Three Kings - Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, but also stands for the abbreviation "Christus - Mansionem - Benedikat", which means "Christ bless this house"!

Christmas cot in the pilgrimage church of St. James the Elder

Agnes and Toni not only exhibit their self-made Christmas cots in the Loretto Chapel during Advent, but also take care of the large cot in the interior of the pilgrimage church on a voluntary basis. The cot, which is getting on in years, is being restored step by step and components such as an oriental gate are being added. Last year, elements such as house walls were added and the late baroque nativity figures were newly dressed. This year, the next figures will follow, such as St. James, and the scene of the Magi will be worked on.

Weihnachtskrippe in St. Jakob © TVB Puch – Gerber

TIP: The large interior of the pilgrimage church, where this nativity scene is located, can only be entered during services. The cot is not easily visible from the rear area.

I promised it - my alpine Christmas cot!

In 2011 I attended my first and unfortunately until now last nativity scene building course in Grödig with Agnes and Toni! After a few weeks, I created my alpine nativity scene with farm, well, stream and other details that were important to me, such as the bread baking oven and the outhouse behind the house. The challenge at the beginning was to match the cot to my grandpa"s homemade figures and to generally know what you want. Where the cot should be placed is also essential. If the cot is placed in a corner, for example, the elements are arranged differently than if you look directly at the cot.

Weihnachtskrippe von Barbara © TVB Puch – Gerber

If you want to build your own nativity scene, I recommend a course at one of the Salzburg nativity scene building associations, such as in Grödig, Bad Vigaun, Kuchl or Abtenau. In addition to the experienced cot builders and helpers who are always on hand with advice and assistance, it is also the material and special tools that are plentiful and can be used. To give you a better idea, here are a few pictures of the creation of my Christmas cot.

A thank you to the cot builders

Making cots is not just a hobby, it is a passion that requires a lot of time and means a lot of dedication to detail and tradition. Even though I have known Agnes and Toni all my life, my visit once again made it clear to me how much they are passionate about cot building and that there is always something new in cot building. The next projects are already buzzing around in their heads, such as a rotating butter churn with several scenes, and there will certainly be more trips to the numerous courses on cot building and figurine production in the future.

Krippenbaumeister Agnes und Toni Höllbacher © TVB Puch – Gerber

I would like to thank Agnes and Toni for the great insights into their work as cot builders, as well as the one or other glass of homemade pine schnapps, and I look forward to the exhibition of their Christmas cribs in the Lorettokapelle from 1 Advent until the end of the year. Drop by and combine your visit on the weekends in Advent with a tour of the idyllic Advent market on the church square of the pilgrimage church of St. Jakob am Thurn.

Tip: on the 1st weekend in Advent, there is an Advent bazaar with a nativity scene exhibition in the basement of the parish centre. There, fellow cot builders Gabi and Hans Greiseder will be exhibiting their Christmas cots, which they have also created as cot builders! Friday, 25.11 from 14-18 h and Saturday, 26.11 from 8-16.30 h!

Feel free to write us a comment or link us on Instagram at @visitpuch if you see one of the wonderful nativity scenes in Puch and post pictures of it online!

Click here for the pilgrimage church in St. Jakob am Thurn

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TIP: Advent events in Puch

Adventveranstaltungen in Puch und Adventmarkt in St. Jakob am Thurn

Further information and events can be found in the events calendar!

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