Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

An exploration of the old spirits, symbols, customs, and crafts of the home.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

Zwetschgenmännla and Zwetschgenweibla: Luck-Bearing Prune People

assorted-color figurine collection bokeh photography

 

One of my strongest memories of living in Bavaria as a child is going to the annual Christkindlmarkt: the perfumes of glühwein and hot chocolate; sizzling bratwurst on brötchen; ringing laughter above the constant rush of conversation and music in the cold winter night air; and so much bright, golden light from carousels, vendors' booths, and shops lining the squares. It's truly a magical, wonder-filled experience. Traditional German crafts are everywhere in these winter markets, from the wooden Weihnachtspyramide (some of which can be several stories tall!) to decorative gingerbread ornaments and the idiosyncratic Zwetschgenmännla.

 

My parents have one of these latter figures in their home even now: a little prune man with a green felt Tyrolean hat, walking stick, and painted smiling face. He's been a fixture in my parents' home for such a long time that I hardly think of him, but I was recently looking at pictures of Christkindlmarkten (for inspiration for a painting I wanted to make) and saw a stall filled with little prune people. It jogged my memory, and I began wondering where these prune people came from, how long they've been around, and what they symbolize.

Silk Road Origins

Plum trees are native to Eastern Europe and Asia, from the Caucasus mountains to China. Plums may have been one of the first fruits domesticated by humans, found in Neolithic settlements "along with olives, grapes and figs" (Wikipedia). Plums, along with other goods, were carried along the Silk Road trade route from these original places to the Mediterranean and then throughout the rest of Europe by the Romans.

 

"Freestone," as opposed to "clingstone," plums are easily pitted and dried into nutrient-rich, shelf-stable prunes. The fruits ripen in August and September, and then are dried, ready just in time for the winter. In the ages before electric refrigeration and chemical preservatives, prunes (along with other dried fruits) were essential foodstuffs in times of poor weather that spoiled crops, infertile winters when fresh fruits and vegetables were not available, and during travel (Pruneau). They provide sustenance in times of want, as well as a reminder of the summer and harvest that has been and, in the next year, will be.

Winter Fare

Prunes became popular ingredients in traditional European winter foods, such as fruitcakes (called früchtebrot, or fruit-bread, in Germany). These are believed to have originated in Roman recipes incorporating "pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins that were mixed into barley mash, “and “in the Middle Ages, honey, spices, and preserved fruits were added" (Wikipedia). These developed over time to take on different characteristics in different regions across Europe, depending on ingredient availability.

 

Stollen is a fruitcake-like German treat served during the Yuletide. Dried fruits are marinated in brandy or rum, then mixed with flour, eggs, butter or oil, milk, and spices. This batter is baked into loaves, then rolled in butter and powdered sugar. They can be eaten fresh, but are better if wrapped in wax paper and stored in a cool, dry place for a couple of weeks. This allows the flavors to mingle and saturate more thoroughly.

Icons for Luck in the Winter

Zwetschgenmännla began to be made ca. 1790 in the German state of Saxony (German Pulse). From there, the craft spread throughout Germany and evolved, including Zwetschgenweibla ("prune women") and representing different occupations, hobbies, and regional costumes, called trachten. There's some disagreement about where the first element of the word, Zwetschge, comes from. Some say it derives from the proposed Vulgar Latin *davascena, meaning "of Damascus" (Wikipedia). Others say that it comes from Slavic languages, particularly Czech, which has the similar word švestka, which also means plum.

 

If you can’t get your hands on a German-made prune person, you can easily make one yourself. You’ll need:

  • a disk of wood for the base
  • strong, flexible wire for the body form
  • a bag of prunes (you can also get dried figs for the body and raisins for the hands and feet, if desired)
  • a whole walnut for the head
  • white, black, and red paint for the facial expression
  • craft felt and cotton to make the clothes
  • hot glue (to secure the clothes and headwear)

 

You may also need a tool to drill a narrow hole into the wood base and the walnut to insert the wire. Alternatively, you can glue the walnut head onto the prune body, and nail the wired body onto the disk with short brad nails. As for design, anything goes: you can make a prune person that reflects your career, hobbies, ancestors, spirits or deities -- whatever image evokes the good fortune that you’d like to draw into your home.

 

Prune people continue to be popular gifts during the Yuletide, or as Germans call it, Weihnachten -- sanctifying, consecrating, or unveiling nights. It’s said that if you have prune people in your house, “You will never be without gold and happiness” (German Pulse). They bring luck to those who keep them, even now when the need for prunes in the winter is not quite as acute as it used to be. They are keepers of good fortune, drawing the nutritive power of unspoiled fruits to the home, warding away the bad luck of poverty and hunger.

 

Now that we’re at the end of a very difficult year, I hope that your winter nights are full of good fortune. And I hope that this good fortune will carry us all into a better new year.

 

 

 

For more winter traditions, read “Yuletide Household Lore & Traditions”, “Edible Luck: German Traditional Foods for the New Year”, and “Perchta: Winter Goddess of the Alps”.

 

Photo by cmophoto.net on Unsplash

Last modified on
The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

Comments

Additional information