Original Publish Date December 8, 2022
It is December first in the Hunter household and I can now officially declare that we are ready for Christmas. My wife and I have spent the last week erecting, placing, fluffing, and decorating thirteen Christmas trees. Yes, thirteen. Our children are grown, our pets have crossed over the rainbow bridge, and we are easing into our roles as empty nesters. Rhonda has themes for her Christmas trees. There is a Disney tree, a Hershey tree, a Steinbach tree, an advertising tree, a teddy bear tree, a smores tree, a Pandora tree, and then there is mine, a history tree populated by ornaments honoring Abraham Lincoln, NASA, Gettysburg, the National Park Service, Civil War battlefields, and Scrooge, my favorite ghost story of all time.
And then there are the two trees she has devoted solely to the traditional Austrian / German toy known as a “Hampelmann” (aka Hampelmaenner). In our house, we call them jumping jacks. They are multi-pieced wooden pull toys depicting traditional western European people, historical personalities, cartoon characters, or anthropomorphic figures that dance as the central string is pulled down. The jointed arms and legs of the toy hop, bounce, and jump wildly, bringing life to the previously inanimate figure. Generally, a jumping jack has three features: strings that are attached close to the pivot so that the physical principle of the lever can come into play; the parts are animated on a single plane only; and, finally, the manipulation depends on a single string to animate all the others.
Hampelmaenners are usually made entirely of wood and hand-painted in bright, shiny colors designed to catch the eye of all who behold them. In Germany, it is not unusual to see a whole cast of delightful Hampelmaenner hanging from the ceiling of a nursery, charming babies of all ages. The mechanical toy has been described as a cross between a puppet and a paper doll. The figure’s joints are interconnected by string ligaments to a central pull string hanging down from the bottom.
Traditional jumping jacks first became popular in Germany, England, and France, but similar mechanical toys date back to the Ancient Egyptians. Among the earliest-known examples are ivory dancing figures, made to spin by pulling their strings. Many of these toy artifacts were found at the archaeological site El-Lisht near the pyramids in Cairo.
In the mid-1700s French jumping jacks (known as “pantins”) proved especially popular among the nobility there. Unsurprisingly, versions were sold that satirized French Royalty and famous figures of the time. In 1747, French parliamentarian and author Edmond Barbier wrote that “one cannot go into any house without finding a pantin hanging by the mantelpiece”. In 1747, there was a fashion for carrying male and female jumping jacks around everywhere as an expression of good form. Some were sold for extraordinary prices. The Duchess of Chartres once gave 1,500 livres (pounds) for a figure painted by François Boucher. D’Alembert wrote in his memoirs: “Everywhere in the street, in the salons where they were hung from chimneys, at court, in the theatre, on the promenades, one could see, not only children and women but even the elderly, pull jumping jacks from their pocket and make them dance in the most serious manner in the world.”
In 1832, the “Hampelmann” character was created by German poet, architect, and theatre director Carl Balthasar Malß as a figure for the Frankfurt burlesque stage. Soon after, jumping jacks became known as Hampelmann in German-speaking countries. The mechanical toys were manufactured in the Erzgebirge (Ore) mountain range in Germany. The Ore Mountains are still known for the folk art created there.
In 1860s England, jumping jacks became known as “Quockerwodgers”. The term eventually became a negative appellation for a politician whose “strings” are pulled entirely by their own “puppetmaster”. The jumping jack maintained popularity in 19th-century Europe through popular imagery, much of it produced commercially by woodcut artists, printmakers, and lithographers like Pellerin in Épinal (France). Peddlers sold colored and stenciled prints that could be pasted onto cardboard, cut out, assembled using pins, and then fitted out with strings. Jumping jacks were often in the image of a Polichinelle (a vulgar “rough puppet” archetypal character of the masquerade) and sometimes of politicians, who were lampooned in this way.
Jumping jacks are also found in other parts of the world, including Africa, Canada, Portugal, and northeast Brazil where they are called mané gostoso. In Arizona and New Mexico, there is a Native American variant of the jumping jack among the Hopi tribe. Carved out of wood and crudely painted, these figures consist of a body-head element, with the lower part hollowed out and drilled through to allow for strings to attach the legs. At shoulder level, the arms are articulated in the same way. A double string passes through holes in the hands. It is crossed between the hands, and pulling on the loop in the string causes it to untwist, making the acrobat somersault.
Whether you call them jumping jacks, pantins, quockerwodgers, or Hampelmaenners, one thing is certain: they remain a timeless toy whose sturdy wooden construction and simple, yet resilient, mechanics assure its place as a legacy toy to be handed down from generation to generation. One of the toys occupying space on Rhonda’s tree is a particular favorite of mine.
Standing 7″ tall, 4″ wide, and 1″ thick and weighing in at 5.1 ounces, this antique wooden jumping jack looks to be over a century old. It depicts a pirate complete with eyepatch, peg leg, and bicorn hat festooned with an ominous-looking skull and crossbones. His mustached face is speckled with whiskers, his arms adorned by tattoos (an anchor on the right forearm, a heart with an arrow through it on the left), and his belt girds his body while holding a dagger against his midsection.
Most importantly, this pirate exhibits signs of having once survived a fire. An unintended fire that is. One look at this jumping jack and it becomes readily apparent that it has a history all its own. A story that will never be known but could easily be imagined. This little jumping jack betrays the hidden dangers of Christmas past.
Few things are likely to inspire seasonal awe as a well-lit Christmas tree. The Christmas tree tradition is one that has developed over many centuries. The ancient pagan ritual revolved around the Yule log which developed into 16th-century Christians using the combination of evergreens and lights to symbolize life in the dead of winter. In the 17th century, German Christians combined the burning of the Yule log with the evergreen tree, adorning its branches with candles and the tradition of illuminated Christmas trees began.
The Christmas tree was introduced to America by the German-speaking people (Pennsylvania Dutch) who settled in Pennsylvania and North Carolina in the early 19th century. By the 1820s the Christmas tree had become popular and within three decades the first Christmas tree stands began to pop up in Gotham City, bringing trees from the Catskill Mountains to New York City’s Washington Market. In 1856, the Christmas tree was cemented as an American tradition when President Franklin Pierce had the first White House tree decorated for a group of Washington Sunday School children. Some Hoosiers contest that, claiming there was no White House Christmas tree until 1889 during the Presidency of Benjamin Harrison.
As more Christmas trees found their way into American homes, problems with the candle-lit design persisted. The first challenge was securing the candles to the branches. Some tried pinning the candles to the branches by sewing pins and needles, others lashed them to the branches with wire or string, and still more used the candle itself by melting the wax base to the branches. Unfortunately, none of these methods seemed to work and often, failed spectacularly.
In 1878, a clip-on candle holder was created to firmly attach a candle to any branch, but unless the trees were monitored constantly, the dried-out trees could quickly become fire hazards through contact with the hot metal. In those days, Christmas trees were only kept lit for about 30 minutes at a time, and even then, buckets of water and sand were always kept close at hand.
The Victorian Era is littered with newspaper accounts of Christmas conflagration, some serious, some minor, and all accidental of course. One such Christmas tree-related incident, this one from 1849, was documented in The Household Narrative, the almanac published by Charles Dickens between 1850 and 1855. In a section Dickens entitled ‘Accident and Disaster’, the creator of Ebenezer Scrooge reported: “There was a large party at the house, and during the night a “German Tree” about five feet high, with its branches covered with bon-bons and other Christmas presents, and lit with a number of small wax tapers, was introduced into the drawing-room for the younger members of the party. While leaning forward to take some toy from the tree, the light gauze overdress of one young lady, Miss Gordon, took fire and blazed up in a most alarming manner. One of the lads present, whose quickness and presence of mind were far superior to his years, with much thought and decision threw down the young lady, and folding her in a rug that was luckily close by, put out the flame before it had done any serious damage beyond scorching her arms severely.”Old newspapers reveal horrific Christmas candle fires. In 1885 a hospital in Chicago burned down because of candles on a Christmas Tree. One Oklahoma blaze killed 36 people. In 1905, a Kansas City man dressed as Santa Claus barely survived after he and his sack of toys caught fire. Legend claims that it was around this time that President Theodore Roosevelt banned Christmas trees from the White House. Although beautiful, a tree lit with dozens of candles was a major fire hazard. In fact, there were so many deaths and so much property loss attributed to Christmas tree fires that in 1908 insurance companies stopped paying out for fires started by candle-lit trees. Newspapers warned against the use of candles on trees and adopted the short-lived slogan “A House of Merriment is better than a House of Mourning.”
However, people continued to use candles to light Christmas Trees which led to more fires. In 1917, a New York City fire from Christmas Tree candles gave teenager and recent immigrant from Madrid, Spain Albert Sadacca an idea. His family sold novelty wicker bird cages that lit up. Albert suggested painting the bulbs bright colors like red and green and using the bird cage lights in long strings to wrap around the branches of Christmas trees. In the following years, he and his brothers formed the NOMA Electric Company, which became a very famous name in Christmas lights. NOMA dominated the Christmas light industry until the 1960s when competition from foreign imports drove them to bankruptcy.
At first, only the rich could afford these extravagant electric lights. Less than 10 percent of America had electricity when Christmas lights arrived. A Christmas tree with electric bulbs could cost as much as $300 in the early 1900s, the equivalent of around $10,000 today. The first strings of electric Christmas lights, known as “festoons,” debuted in 1903 and cost $12 each (slightly less than the average weekly wage at the time and equal to over $400 today). Within a decade (1914) the price of a string of “eight miniature colored glass lamps with screw-in wall socket” dropped to $1.75 (still over $50 today). By the 1920s, Christmas tree lights were even cheaper, and by the 1930s, electric lights were sweeping the market.
However, although candles were being replaced, electricity can also cause fires. One need look no further than White Christmas singer/actor Bing Crosby who lost his home to a fire caused by faulty Christmas light wiring in 1943. In conclusion: Christmas tree lights, whether candle-powered or electric, are all potentially dangerous. And this funny little Pirate jumping jack, with his telltale scorch marks and threadbare pull-string, is a mute witness to those dangers of yesteryear. His image is sure to set any fertile Yuletide imagination ablaze.