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Candle Powered
Angel Chimes


Web site visitor Eric Holzenberg wrote to George, sharing information about a candle powered angel chime in his collection. The chime in Eric's collection was similar to an electric chime pictured on this site (Click Here). After some interesting discussions about his research and collecting efforts, Eric agreed to present information about his collection on George's pages. Sadly, when George's site was closed down, all of the photographs of Eric's collection were deleted. We were able to restore the summary page below. Click to see Eric's updated 'Whirlig Christmas' site.

New for 2011! Since we published this summary page, we have been given permission to post Eric Holzenberg's new, expanded Whirligig Christmas site, which contains many resources that were never available before, even on the Nelsons' sites. To see Eric's updated pages, click here.

All of the information and pictures on this page are copyright © 2005 by the author, Eric Holzenberg. All rights reserved.



Angel Chimes
A brief survey

For those of us who grew up with them, candle chimes are the distillation of Christmas, an utterly seasonal blend of light, motion, and sound. They belong to a purely domestic and old-fashioned type of Christmas festival, one that emphasizes a dark room over a brightly lit one (to appreciate the dancing interplay of light and shadow);  calm over activity (so that stray air currents shouldn’t disrupt the workings); and quiet over noise (the better to hear the delicate chimes). Darkness, stillness, silence: all inescapable aspects of the northern winter, and it is therefore not surprising that candle chimes should be such an enduring tradition in German, Scandinavian and North American Christmas celebrations.  

All candle chimes are constructed on same simple principle: lighted candles create a warm updraft of air, which moves an impeller carrying small clappers; as the impeller rotates, the clappers ring a set of chimes. Most of these toys were intended as Christmas decorations, and angel figures are thus very often a key part of the design, either as decoration, or as supports for the clappers or some other part of the apparatus.   

Where there are angels, they are often shown blowing horns, the chimes standing symbolically (if inadequately) for the noise of the heavenly hosts trumpeting the news of the Nativity to the shepherds. The number of candles, chimes, clappers, and angels can vary. Some candle chimes were designed as tree toppers, some as table decorations; some did double duty. And a few single-candle chimes were designed as ornaments, meant to hang in the boughs of a Christmas tree.   

Although German in origin, these musical toys have been popular throughout Europe and America for over a hundred years, sold in German-speaking countries as “Engelsgeläute” (angel chimes), “Weihnachtsgeläute” (Christmas chimes), or “Christbaumgeläute” (Christmas tree chimes); in Scandinavia as “Änglaspelet;” and in Finland as “Enkelikellot” (a term derived directly from the German “Engelgeläute”).  Though less common in southern climates, we also find “los angelitos” in Spanish-speaking countries, and “carillon des anges” in France. In America they have been marketed most commonly as “Angel Chimes” (a literal translation of the German “Engelgeläute”), but sometimes more fancifully as “Whispering Angels,” or “Angel-Abra.” 

This survey does not deal with the "pyramide"-type of revolving Christmas toy. Although they probably have the same ancestor, they are separate species: the “pyramide” is generally made (often hand-made) of wood, not mass-produced from metal, and is classed with the carved wooden toys produced in the Erzgebirge region of Germany; it may or may not incorporate chimes; and angels are not necessarily a key element of the design. In addition, the "pyramide" was less popular in America than the metal candle chimes: seldom (as far as I know) manufactured in the US, and imported less often. (And finally: I don’t have any in my collection!) 

Unless otherwise noted, the illustrations are from the author’s own collection. This assembly is only about five years old, so the information given here is necessarily preliminary, and therefore somewhat sketchy, drawn mainly from what the collector has seen with his own eyes. It is only occasionally supported by research in books (mostly German, in which the collector is NOT fluent), in useful websites like this one, and those of the various national patent agencies. Needless to say, the author welcomes comments, additions and corrections, particularly information on manufacturers and variant models, as well as examples of marketing from contemporary catalogs. 

My thanks to site owner George Nelson, not only for allowing me to share this fascinating corner of pre- (or anti-?) electric Christmas lighting on his website, but also for his boundless enthusiasm — which rivals my own — and his impressive technical know-how, without which these images would have remained in my digital camera. 

Eric Holzenberg


General notes for the collector 

Dimensions: Dimensions are given in centimeters, height (usually to the top of the tallest element on the chime) times width (usually the width of the chime supports); the diameter of circular bases, or the width times length of rectangular bases, are also given where appropriate.  

Condition: No condition rating has been applied to the items in this collection, but others may want to consult
 one of the standard systems for judging toy condition, such as this one at PGTOYS. Metal candle chimes were usually seasonal items, used briefly at Advent through Christmas, and then packed away for the rest of the year; and although generally manufactured by toy-makers, they were not handled much by children. Compared to other antique metal toys, a surprising number of candle chimes survive in good condition, with original packaging, and the collector of course will prefer these examples. A collectible chime will retain its original finish. For the early German chimes, nickel-plated, gilded or lithographed elements should be bright, clean and unworn, without scratches or rust. (You can prevent scratches and other damage by packing chime elements in acid-free tissue paper.) In Germany it is apparently relatively common to re-plate worn elements, but original condition is generally preferable.  For the later Swedish-pattern brass chimes, the state of the surface is a matter of taste: personally I prefer not to polish away the patina of age. A collectible chime will have all its bits, although it can be difficult to tell what a “complete” chime ought to consist of. Commonly missing from early German chimes, for instance, are the little silver or gilt stars which sit atop the chimes; other casualties are angel toppers, bell-clappers, and candle-holders. Original packaging and
instructions can be crucial in determining whether a chime is complete: the cover picture will usually show the fully-assembled chime, with all its elements; and if there are assembly instructions, these will often include a parts list. Even where the packaging and instructions are not strictly necessary for assembly or inventory, they are still desirable both philosophically — the chime is not really ‘complete’ without them — and practically, since a chime with original packaging (particularly in good, unworn condition) and instructions is worth much more than a chime that lacks these elements.  

Care and maintenance:  Fire and oily soot residue are the greatest enemies of candle chimes. Make sure that the candleholders don’t sit too near or directly below painted or plated elements: soot build-up and and burn marks are common (and avoidable) condition problems in candle chimes.  Gentle cleaning at the end of each season with a small amount of grease-cutting household cleaner like Formula 409 or Fantastik can help keep soot build-up under control. (Don’t use harsher commercial cleaners or degreasers, since these can damage lithographed and painted finishes.) Don’t allow the candles to burn down completely: digging puddles of wax out of the candleholders will eventually damage them. A number of things can prevent a chime from functioning. Make sure that the spindle which carries the impeller is absolutely vertical: a lean of just a few degrees can cause problems. A spindle that is worn or blunted will also keep the chime from running: it can be sharpened with a fine metal file. Check that the blades of the impeller are all at a uniform angle of about 45 degrees. Note that you may have to adjust the chime holders so that the clappers just brush the chimes: bend them too far in, and the clappers will slow and eventually stop the impeller; bend them too far out, and the clappers won’t strike at all. Finally, make sure that the chime is not sitting in a draft: the hot air currents must rise straight up in order to move the impeller. 




It is not clear when and where the first candle chime was made. The makers of some 1950s-era Swedish angel chimes asserted that their product was “an exact replica of a beautiful old Swedish original,” but I have not been able to substantiate that claim. At about the same time the American firm of Holt Howard was putting forward an even more dubious parentage for its “Angel-abra”:  “Many years ago in the kingdom of Bavaria, a devoted troubadour fashioned the first Angel-abra. Presented to the beautiful, young Princess Anna along with the lavish gifts of Knights and Nobles, the troubadour’s offering captured the fancy of the happy Princess and became her most prized possession.” Although the other details are pure invention, this fanciful description is in the ballpark when it come to the probable place of origin of the first candle chimes.  

Most of the scant historical evidence on the origins of these toys seems to point to Germany. One likely ancestor, dating from the late middle ages, was the wooden pyramid set up at Christmas in some German homes. The triangular shape of this “pyramide” represented the Trinity, and it was often decorated with candles (symbolizing Christ as the light of the world), the Star of Bethlehem, and other ornaments. This custom eventually merged with an even more ancient pagan practice of bringing evergreen trees indoors at the winter solstice. Sanitized and Christianized by Martin Luther and others, the result was the decorated, candle-lit Christmas tree. (Shown to the right is a German print from 1800 entitled “The First Sight of the Christmas Tree,” by Josef Kelbner). But the ancient idea of the decorated wooden pyramid is known to have survived well into modern times (shown above left is a mid-nineteenth-century print illustrating a German Weihnachtspyramide) and it may very well have mutated, first into the hand-made candle-powered revolving wooden “pyramide” toys of the Erzgebirge region; and later into the sturdier, mass-produced tin and brass toys generally marketed as “angel chimes.”   

Whatever their ancestry, we should look, not to Bavaria, but to the Westphalian manufacturing city of Solingen, for the earliest mass-production of metal candle-powered chimes. 

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