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Beyond the Lone Islands

Friday, 17 December 2010

Christmas Horses

Advent Calendar / 17 December


… Really?! … Well, the first reaction would be “neigh”… (“nej” meaning “no” in Swedish!) … but on second thought …

These ponies I found in the Christmas market last weekend, and children could go for a ride around the town square.

“In the good old days”, when people went by sleigh to church early on Christmas morning… the sleigh was of course drawn by horses.

Photo from

I’ve mentioned before that pastry cutters for Christmas gingerbread biscuits come in all kinds of shapes – including the pig, and the yule goat. Many years ago on holiday in the province Dalarna in central Sweden, I also bought pastry cutters in the shape of horses.

imageThis picture I found on the internet
(easier than finding my own cutters)

The province Dalarna is famous for their wooden horses (in the same shape as the pastry cutters), colourfully decorated with a special kind of folk art, kurbits.

My Dala-horse, and a model of a grandfather type of clock 
from the same area; both painted in the “kurbits” style.

I mentioned in connection with Lucia, that the male participants in the Lucia processions, called “star boys”, are associated with the first Christian martyr, St Stephen. One of the songs often sung by the boys in the Lucia procession talks of St Stephen (“Staffan”, in Swedish) as an ostler or stable boy, taking care of his “five horses”, “in the light of the star”. The origins of this song are said to go back way further than the Lucia traditions and are based on a legend that places Stephen as a servant of King Herod around the birth of Jesus (rather than as the first martyr of the early church after Jesus’ death ~35 AD): seeing the star of Bethlehem he told Herod about it, and thereby aroused the king’s anger.


A medieval church ceiling painting of St Stephen and his horses
(picture from Swedish Wikipedia) ~ 1200 AD

The horse, just like the pig and the goat, also belongs in pre-Christian Scandinavian traditions. The Old Norse god Odin’s horse Sleipnir was said to have eight feet. He could run through the air as well as on the ground, and the stories also tell of him being ridden down into the Underworld to the realm of the dead (reigned by queen Hel). Horses were also used for sacrifices.

Looking at the medieval painting above, I doubt it is quite a coincidence that it can be seen either as two horses, or as one horse with eight feet and two heads, one pointing up, and one down. It strikes me that the painting was probably meant to recall ideas of descending into hell and rising into heaven, borrowing the imagery from the old religion. (A “revelation” that only dawned on me just now. I had no idea whatsoever when I started writing this post that from the ponies at the Christmas market I would end up with references to old Sleipnir…!)


Sandra said...

i did not notice the 8 feet and 2 heads until you mentioned it. could be either way. thanks for more info, very very interesting to me. the clock and horse are really pretty, so bright colors and i like bright colors

Ginny said...

What a lot of great information and pretty pictures! Those two horses are painted very cleverly, and I think your revelation about the way the heads are facing is right! I love your horse and grandfather clock, so pretty. I've seen that kind of painting, and now I know it has a name and what it is called. I had no idea about Stephen, I'm guessing they are talking about another Stephen and not attributing this to the real martyr.

Rose-Anne said...

I have a Dala Horse that I bought when I was in sweden. I also have a glass Costa Boda One.

GB said...

A fascinating post.


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