No one is saying nutcrackers don’t deserve their notoriety. But take a gander at Kati Griffith’s collection of smokers, and you may feel your loyalties begin to wander.
These small, wooden statues are carved to represent a variety of German folkloric figures and open at the waist to hold a tiny incense cone. When the cone is lit, a plume puffs from the figure’s mouth, just like from a real pipe, but infinitely more fragrant and charming.
It’s no wonder that while Griffith’s extensive Christmas folk art collection includes a handful of nutcrackers, her smoker lineup numbers 25.
“I always feel like I’m a kid at Christmas,” says the Bonita Springs resident.
Among the figurines is a chimney sweep, which in German folklore symbolizes good luck for the New Year, and a miller, complete with a bulging sack of flour and tiny cat to chase away troublesome mice.
The latter figurine is a personal favorite, Griffith adds.
“I really like the smokers,” she says. “I think they have more character.”
The smokers are just one part of Griffith’s overall Christmas folk art collection. She was born in Budapest, Hungary, but her family left the country at the end of World War II. For five years, she was raised in Germany before immigrating to the United States. A love of tradition — plus an overall appreciation for folk art she shares with her husband Dave — has helped her to amass a Christmas folk art collection that includes handmade crèches, stockings, ornaments and German Christmas tree pyramids.
Figures from childhood
She even still has the first Christmas figurine she received as a child, a palm-sized porcelain angel that held space for candle.
“I got this when I was 8 or 9 and I just loved her,” Griffith says. “That’s probably what got me started collecting.”
Many of her folk art Christmas pieces were found on journeys to Hungary to Germany and hail from those countries. The Hungarian items often boast extensive traditional embroidery. The work is so intricate and involved, it seems as though it would have to be done on a machine, but it is entirely handmade.
Among the pieces Griffith owns are a figure of Mikulas, the Hungarian version of St. Nick. Mikulas wears a full-length, heavily embroidered robe and pointed hat. Her collection of Hungarian stockings include one bearing the image of a deer. In Hungarian lore, Griffith explains, it was a deer that led the Hungarian people from the East into Europe.
A three-foot tabletop tree boasts more Hungarian ornaments, as well as straw angels from the Transylvania region of Romania, which borders Hungary. Many of the ornaments are familiar Christmas fare — stars, candles, peppermint sticks — but traditional Hungarian figures also appear, such as a Hungarian cowboy, complete with fur robe and broad hat.
One type of fabric dominates the ornaments and stockings.
“Felt is very popular this kind of thing,” Griffith says.
The creche ‘tour’
Her crèche collection is like a tiny tour of the globe. Every imaginable country and region is represented, from the Middle East to Europe to South America. Each crèche reveals something about the culture from which it comes: Figures are dressed in the customary clothing of their countries and often rendered in a material common to the area, such as olive wood for a Palestinian crèche or handworked metal from Haiti.
One of Griffith’s favorites is an African crèche. The manger is made from a coconut, and the figures are created from clay. It’s slightly eerie — each figurine only has eyes — but enchanting at the same time. Griffith notes that it’s the one crèche she owns where she’s not entirely sure who is who.
Throughout the years, the Griffiths have collected countless folk art objects on their travels. Still, they don’t consider themselves “collectors,” Griffith explains. She likes to be surrounded by the beauty of the objects, and enjoys seeing the universal themes that occur between pieces from wildly different cultures.
An example: On either side of the couple’s wet bar, Griffith has hung two necklaces. She acquired one the couple’s trip to Papua, New Guinea; Griffith purchased the other from a Masai tribeswoman in Africa. Despite the obvious geographical gap, there is a marked similarity between the style of the two necklaces and even the materials used, which contain the same sort of seashells.
“You’re limited by what you see, by what you experience, by what materials you have,” Griffith says of the artisans.
The Griffith home is a treasure trove of unique and remarkable folk art and historical objects, few more interesting than those belonging to Griffith’s own family. After leaving Hungary, her family was eventually able to reclaim many of the items they had to leave behind.
Those items include papers of Hungarian nobility that date from 1687 and bear her family’s crest and the Hungarian king’s wax seal. Also on display are oil portraits of her grandparents, elegant ladies and gentlemen in old-fashioned outfits and hairstyles.
In a humorous bit of curating, these portraits hang around the corner from New Guinea tribal art — art that includes a head hook, which was used for carrying the heads of enemy tribesmen back to camp, “sort of like a shopping bag,” Griffith says with a laugh.
It’s an eclectic, exciting folk art mix, and one the Griffiths are pleased to share.
“I think it’s important to preserve it,” Griffith says. “But mostly, I think it’s for our pleasure.”