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Christmas pyramid lights up Alabama city
The 30-foot-tall Christmas pyramid in Cullman, Ala., Nov. 23, 2019. The new wooden Weihnachtspyramide, or Christmas pyramid, celebrates the city’s German roots. Wes Frazer/The New York Times.

by Johnny Diaz

CULLMAN (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- At 30 feet tall, the wooden Christmas centerpiece stands out in downtown Cullman, Alabama. Carved figures of snowmen, angels, nutcracker soldiers and early settlers peek out from each level. At night when lit by electric candles, the structure glows like a cake topper in photos.

It’s a Weihnachtspyramide, or Christmas pyramid, in German, and a nod by local officials to the city’s roots and the holiday season when it was recently unveiled.

“Everyone loves it, even if they don’t understand what it is,” Jasef Wisener, marketing coordinator for the city’s parks, recreation and sports tourism department, said of the pyramid, a German tradition. “When they see it, they know it means Christmas in German.”

Cullman, which has a population of almost 16,000, sits along Interstate 65, about 50 miles north of Birmingham. A celebration of German heritage there might be expected to raise some eyebrows. In the past, national media attention on the mostly white city has focused on a notorious reputation for racism that lingered for more than a century. But that does not seem to have affected the public reception of the pyramid.

The display is more like a tower than an ancient pyramid, resembling a multilevel carousel tiered like a wedding cake. Its decorated artwork originated with woodcarvers in the Erzgebirge mountain region. A traditional German pyramid, which is a few feet high, is usually bedecked with small figures playing out Christmas scenes on its bottom or top level. A wood propeller, powered by the heat of candles on each side, typically rotates the centerpiece.

Cullman’s structure, though, is super sized, with six rotating tiers, including one with a Nativity scene, moved by a motorized rotor at the top. In all, 32 figures including a police officer, fireman and baker, adorn the other levels, according to city officials.

If visitors look closely, they may spot a figure of John G. Cullmann, the German immigrant who founded the city in 1873. He has been credited with bringing more than 100,000 immigrants from Europe and people from other parts of the United States there from 1871 to 1895, when he died, according to the city.

The idea to honor the city’s roots came to Mayor Woody Jacobs after he learned of a pyramid in Fredericksburg, Texas, which also has a German history. Cullman’s City Council commissioned the piece and officials said they planned to set up the pyramid and a new Christmas market as an annual holiday tradition.

The city worked with the same German company, Erzgebirgische Holzkunst Gahlenz, that built the 26-foot-tall structure in Texas, and a 17-foot one inside a casino in Cripple Creek, Colorado.

Cullman’s pyramid was assembled by hand in Gahlenz, Germany, one of the owners, Gundolf Berger, said recently.

“Building an outdoor pyramid is always something very special,” Berger said.

Jacobs declined to say how much it cost, but “it was expensive,” he said. “It was more than your typical Christmas tree — it was an investment.”

The arrival of the pyramid could be a sign of changing times for a city that was once known for a different public display, an infamous roadside sign warning black people not to linger after dark. In his book “Stars Fell on Alabama,” the travel writer Carl Carmer described visiting the town in the 1920s and seeing the sign, which used a racist slur referring to black people and warned, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You in This Town.”

Even though the Alabama NAACP has not received many discrimination complaints from Cullman in recent years, Benard Simelton, the group’s president, said “There are still people in the community, right or wrong, who still have a stigma about staying away from Cullman.”

The city population is still more than 94% white, according to the 2018 census. Surrounding Cullman County is also overwhelmingly white, and most black residents have typically lived in Colony, a town outside Cullman. According to 2017 census figures, Colony had 389 black residents and 22 white residents.

Earlene Johnson, the 81-year-old retired mayor of Colony and a former teacher, said she had seen some improvements in local race relations. “It’s nothing like they describe in the early days,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of incidents of name calling or anything.”

Johnson also praised the pyramid, which she saw recently. “It tells the story of why we have Christmas,” she said. “It’s very good.”

There have been other signs of change. In a 2008 special election, James Fields, a minister, became the first African-American lawmaker elected to the State House of Representatives to represent Cullman County. He lost his reelection bid in 2010.

In a recent interview, Fields, who grew up in Colony and still lives there, described Cullman as a rural bedroom community that hosts cultural events such as an Oktoberfest, a strawberry festival and a crafts fair.

And now there’s a giant pyramid.

People online have welcomed it with videos and photos using the hashtag #cullmanchristmaspyramid and #christmaspyramid.

“An amazing work of art!’’ a user posted on Instagram.

Madelyne Grimmett, 19, kept hearing about the pyramid that rose in her hometown and snapped some photos.

“When I first saw it, I thought it was really pretty and a good way to keep incorporating the German heritage that Cullman has into our modern day life,’’ she said in a recent email.

On Nov. 23, crowds gathered in downtown Cullman to celebrate the annual tree lighting and the pyramid’s official unveiling. Fireworks lit the sky. Holiday music including “Feliz Navidad” played in the background and Santa greeted visitors.

“Each year when the pyramid goes up, children young and old will know that the Christmas season has arrived,” said Drew Green, the director of the Cullman County Museum, a replica of Cullmann’s house.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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