Christmas Folk Art – the origins of 5 iconic crafts

Christmas traditions vary from country to country and – often even more radically – from household to household, with people creating strict rules surrounding when the presents are opened, when the turkey is sliced, if there even is a turkey and so on. Unsurprisingly Christmas decorations are just as rooted in tradition and values and today we’ve fixed upon the single theme of Folk Art to explore how a variety of cultures have expressed one broad aesthetic in quite different ways. The most evocative stories and finds come from the snowy places that excel in making Christmas look good. Lets begin in Scandinavia…

The Swedish Dala Horse

Something of  symbol of Sweden, the Dala horse hails from the 17th century when little wooden horses were sold at markets in Dalarna, central Sweden. A century later and men working in forests would carve their own wooden horses during the long winter evenings, later bringing their creations home for their children to play with. This quickly evolved as makers painted the simple carved toys in bright colours and floral patterns inspired by the furniture from the same region. Dala horses became an important source of income for poor families and their young children were even roped into learning the craft after school. It’s alleged that children from one family started their own small business selling Dala horses in 1928 and that their ancestors are still producing the Dala horse to this day from a small village in Dalarna.

Nisse and Tomte figures – from Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland

A (Norwegian or Danish) Nisse or Tomte in Swedish (Tonttu in Finnish) is a domestic sprite from Scandinavian folklore that’s associated with the winter solstice and Christmas. Similar to a garden gnome and about three feet tall in height, the mythological creature was originally responsible for protecting the farmstead. We found a whole long tale surrounding their need for respect from their employer, including a bowl of julegrøt (Christmas porridge) with butter on Christmas Eve  – without which they’ll quit their job and the farmer will fall into poverty. Not the jolliest of Christmas messages doing the rounds, but the long and short of it is respect your fellow human. The sprite has been toyed with since this story as you can see above, from the 1980’s ski-ing Tromte and one of the many Santas out there.

Matryoshka dolls – or Russian nesting doll



Snowmen, Santas – a modern and Christmassy take on the nest doll

Before we continue, the snowmen above hail from contemporary design studio COMPANY in Finland and the Santas are a 1970’s relic from America. But the nesting doll – Matryoshka doll, or Babushka doll (which means grandmother) – does of course hail from Russia where the first set was made in 1890 by Vasily Zvyozdochkin, who worked from a design by folk crafts painter Sergey Malyutin. Traditionally the largest doll is a woman clothed in a Russian peasant dress, then inside is a mix of male and female dolls right down to the smallest figure, a baby made from a single piece of wood. Designs often take their cues from fairytales but also Soviet leaders – more gents and no peasant lady there obviously. As COMPANY proves, there are endless opportunities to explore with the concept and designers frequently do.

Wycinanki – Polish paper cutting

Wycinanki – or Polish paper cutting – is a decorating tradition that became popular in the mid 1800’s and involves cutting coloured paper into birds, flowers, trees and figures to create a pattern. The prints can be pasted onto furniture or surfaces of the home – beams, doors, walls – or presented as straightforward cards. The style of designs also vary from region to region – some sticking to one colour and others (like above) multi-coloured. Techniques are passed down through generations and in some parts of Poland there are even wycinanki competitions. Find instructions on how to create your own here.

Wooden Christmas Toys of Germany


Nutcraker tree decorations from Thorsten Van Elten


Ski scene toys made in the Ore Mountains, from Thorsten Van Elten


The Ore Mountains in Germany is an area with a long history of wooden toy production and is also home to a great looking Nutcracker Museum, in the town of Neuhausen. At the centre of the region is Seiffen, the town where the toy industry took off after the recession of ore mining in the area. In 1699 local resident Johann Friedrich Hiemann took Seiffen toys to market at Nuremberg, then a major centre of toy distribution for most of Europe. Seiffen’s toys were both cheaper and of a higher quality than their competitors and so the industry thrived. The above toys are sold by Thorsten Van Elten who’s own travels to Seiffen are detailed in his blog and feature brilliant snaps of supersize wooden toys,




Jill Macnair


Jill Macnair has worked as an interiors journalist for 13 years, contributing to titles including Elle Decoration, The Sunday Times and The Guardian. She set up cult interiors blog My Friend’s House in 2009 with Ros Anderson and continues to run the forum daily.

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