If It’s Christmas, It’s Time for Swedish Dala Horses! Part I.

Fig. 1: Inside the Stockholm Dala Horse Store. © Tim Bird / Lonely Planet


Professor JoAnn Conrad, a folklorist who knows a tremendous amount about  Northern European visual culture for children, was a Cotsen Research Grant Fellow several years ago.  She got in touch a few weeks ago to ask if I’d be interested in running a blog on Scandinavian picture books for the holidays.  Her idea was to take a look at appearances of the Dala horse, the most famous of Swedish toys, in Christmas books published in Europe and America 1900-1950.  JoAnn always has new, interesting insights about children’s books from this period, so the answer was an enthusiastic yes.  Enjoy this lavishly illustrated essay on ways the modern Swedish and American ways of representing the joys of Christmas to children have coincided.

Fig. 2: IKEA’s “Vinter 2020” Candles, decorated with Dala horses, Christmas trees, hearts, and goats from the online catalog.

The mix-and-match of Christmas paraphernalia, motifs, and images now often includes the Dala horse from the Dalarna region of Sweden. The bright red-colored wooden horses have been seamlessly folded into Christmas consumer lore, not only in Sweden but also in the US, as with these  IKEA “Vinter 2020” candles (Fig. 2), on which horses, houses, hearts and humans (or gingerbread people?) consort with the vaguest of cultural connections. They are just “Christmas-y.”

Fig. 3: Shop where crafts people paint Dala horses on site at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm.

Travelers to Sweden, or even those on layovers to other destinations, have long found it difficult to miss the ubiquitous Dala horses, the touristic “symbol of Sweden” in Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport (Fig. 3).

Fig. 4: 19th-century Dala horse toy excavated in Falun. Photo: Mikael Assmundsson, SVT/ Arkeologerna[i].

 The story of how these small children’s toys made by rural craftspeople were elevated into a national symbol is surprisingly complicated.  Originally the horses were small wooden toys made for children by the foresters in the Dalarna region in central Sweden and sold in local markets.   One such horse from the 19th century, was recently excavated in Falun (Fig. 4).   ‘Falun Red,’ the famous color of Swedish country houses, is  a byproduct of the copper mining process. At its peak in the seventeenth century. Falun had supplied nearly two-thirds of Europe’s copper.  The red paint used on today’s horses is a throwback to the Falun mines, where the foresters worked.

By the late 1800s, the Falun mine was in decline and in the economic fallout, many moved to the cities for work or emigrated to the United States.  At the same time, the “Culture Builders” of Sweden were looking to unify the people around a shared Swedish identity.  In that nation-building moment, the regional became national and Dalarna soon achieved the status as the “Swedish heartland.”  This was enhanced by images of Dalarna by the famous artists who made it their new home–Carl Larsson, Anders Zorn, and Ottilia Adelborg (Selma Lagerlöf, author of The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, also moved there). Traditional Dalarna handicrafts became tourist souvenirs  whose consumption, decoration, and display invited the urban bourgeoisie to participate in this new expression of Swedishness (Figs.5-6).

Fig. 5: Small child from Dalarna with toy horse. 1915. Foto by Foto Karl Lärka, Mora Bygdearkiv

Fig. 6: Bourgeois Swedish children and nanny with a small Dala horse in the bottom left ca. 1910.

Local Dalarna industries that emerged in the vacuum created by the decline of mining and logging provided these souvenirs.  One was started by the brothers Nils and Jannes Olsson in 1922 in Nusnäs. The factory, still a major producer of Dala horses, began by producing the unfinished wood horses, which were then farmed out to locals for painting and finishing.   The horses were shipped to Stockholm shops for both local and touristic consumption.   As symbols of Sweden, they became increasingly linked with Christmas from the 1890 onward, as can be seen in “On Christmas Eve” [På Julafton] by Karl Aspelin (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7: “På Julafton” engraving after Karl Aspelin from the 1898 Christmas annual Jultomten. This bourgeois family scene shows a little girl carrying a toy Dala horse.

Fantastic Horses and Their illustrators

At the fin de siècle, the twin forces of nation-building and industrialization met in the publishing industry, particularly in Scandinavian children’s print culture.   Authors and illustrators contributed to an ever-expanding market that favored one form over all others, the fairy tale.  Christmas was the busiest time for the children’s publishing industry, many houses putting out their Christmas annuals.  Heavily illustrated and featuring a high percentage of original fairy tales, this periodicals were instrumental in reinforcing Dala horse-Christmas connection (Figs. 8 and 9).

Fig. 8: Cover of a child (or tomte) riding a Dala horse by Aina Stenberg Masolle for the Christmas annual Lilleputt (Folkskolans Barntidnings förlag, 1913-1922). Courtesy of The Swedish Institute for Children’s Books.

Fig. 9: Two covers of children riding gingerbread Christmas goats for the Christmas annual Tummeliten (left: Gunhild Facks (?); right: Einar Nerman). While not Dala horses, they still demonstrate the popularity of this imaginary kind of transport. Courtesy of The Swedish Institute for Children’s Books.

The Christmas Dala horse was also a favorite subject in popular illustrated holiday greeting cards, illustrated by many of the same artists who illustrated children’s books and annuals during the first decades of the 20th century (Figs. 10-12).


Fig. 10: Cards from 1920s and 1930s by Einar Nerman (1888-1983)

Fig. 11: Card ca. 1910 by Aina Stenberg-Masolle. Her images, as do those of her contemporaries Ottilia Adelborg and Elsa Hammar Moeschlin often feature vivid, detailed examples of Dalarna costume.

Fig. 12: Card by Elsa Hammar-Moeschlin, who lived in Leksand, Dalarna after her training at the Royal Academy of Art.

Dream Journeys on Magical Horses

A popular Swedish fairy-tale theme was the Christmas Eve dream journey. Perhaps the first such example was Viktor Rydberg’s 1871 Lille Viggs äventyr på julafton [Little Vigg’s Adventures on Christmas Eve, also translated as The Christmas Tomten].  Waiting for his adoptive mother’s return home on Christmas Eve, little Vigg falls asleep, and in his dream accompanies the Julvätten, or Christmas spirit, later to renamed the Jultomten, on his visits to all families in a sled, drawn by four miniature horses (Fig. 13). Jenny Nyström, who was responsible for creating the quintessential look of the Jultomten, illustrated the second edition of Rydberg’s tale (1875).

Another fantastic Christmas dream journey is “Julnattsfärd till Sagolandet” [Christmas Eve Journey to Fairy Tale Land] in the  Christmas annual Jultomten (1899)In Elin Westman’s illustration, a long procession of children astride their toy animals, including a horse, many painted in the Dalarna style, march towards a castle.  And no wonder! During their long winter night in Fairy Tale Land, the children will be permitted to gorge on candy and sweet drinks  (Fig. 14).

Fig. 13: Jenny Nyström’s 1875 illustration for Rydberg’s “Lille Vigg.” The horses are not Dala horses, but magical ones.

Fig. 14: Illustration for Christmas Eve Journey to Fairy Tale Land by Elin Westman for. Jultomten (1899), 11. Courtesy of the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books.

Author/illustrator Maj Lindman’s 1922 Snipp, Snapp, Snurr och trollhästen [Snipp, Snapp, Snurr and the Magic Horse],[iv] the second in her series about the eponymous triplets, conjures up a flying rocking horse, which delivers the boys to a fantastic kingdom for a visit to a princess.  The characters’ clothing, bears a decidedly 20s aesthetic (Fig. 15).  Neither a Christmas book, nor one featuring a Dala horse, Lindman does refer to the toy in the die-cut pages and binding boards, providing the formulaic structure for subsequent fairy-tale dream journeys on Dala horses.

Fig. 15: Maj Lindman’s 1922 Snipp, Snapp, Snurr och trollhästen. Note the decoration with the dala horses in the illustration on the right.

The boys arrive at a palace on the hill, reminiscent of the one in Elin Westman’s Fairy Tale Land, which is also stuffed with forbidden treats for their pleasure.  Princess Törnrosa in her pink dress meets the triplets and takes them to her garden, where they indulge in cake, candy, waffles, and lemonade until they get stomach aches. When they cry for their mommy, the Princess sends them packing.  After a rather nightmarish ride home, mother comforts her sons with “wholesome” food — milk and sausage sandwiches (Fig. 16).

Fig. 16: Mores scenes from the triplets’ adventures by Maj Lindman.

Fig. 17: From Annie Bergmann’s Dalhasten (1923).

One year later, author/illustrator Annie Bergman’s Dalhästen offered another variation on the magic Dala horse Christmas dream story.  In her picture book, an unnamed small boy receives a wooden horse as a Christmas present from his father, who reminds the boy that the horse is not a real horse. The disappointed boy takes the toy to bed anyway (Fig. 17). In the next opening, the horse, having apparently taken offense at the father’s comment, says to the boy “I will show you that I am a real horse.” The boy then hitches the now very large horse to his father’s wagon and they set off to a nearby palace by hoof, not wings.  They share a constrained tea with a princess robed in pink and take a walk through the garden (Fig. 18).

Fig. 18: From Annie Bergmann, Dalhasten.

The boy and the horse are greeted by his family upon their arrival home and the father sees the “real” horse for himself.  The last illustration shows the boy back in bed, waking up in the morning with the small horse standing by his bed as it was the night before. But now the boy knows his horse is a real horse after all.

The Dala horse was also featured in poetry of the period.  In Einar Nerman’s 1947 illustrated song book Dalahästen och andra barnvisor [The Dala Horse and other Children’s Songs],[v] the illustration for the title song is a visual intertextual reference to the Dala horse in an English-language story Nerman wrote in 1946, which will be discussed in this blog’s second part.(Fig. 19).  Nerman repurposed it from  another “frightfully long horse” he created for his version of a medieval ballad, Riddaren Finn Komfusenfej[vi] (1923) (Figs. 19-20).

Fig. 19: Einar Nerman’s second take on his long Dala horse in Dalahästen och andra barnvisor (1947).

Fig. 20: Einar Nerman’s original 1923 concept.

Another song in Nerman’s collection Dalahästen och andra barnvisor,”Resan till Pepparkakeland” [Journey to Gingerbread Land] bears mention for the way it incoporates  all the elements of the Christmas Eve dream journey, with one change—substituting a gingerbread Christmas goat for the Dala horse.  This song was also based on an earlier picture book, Resan till Pepparkakslandet (1934) in which the children first stuff themselves baking Christmas gingerbread at home, then in a dream overindulge a second time in Gingerbread Land (Figs. 21-22).

Fig. 21: Illustration by Einar Nerman for the song “Resan till Pepparkakeland” in his Dalahästen och andra barnvisor (1947).

Fig. 22: Illustration by Einar Nerman from Resan till Pepparkakslandet (1934).

The Dala horse has certainly won a prominent place in Swedish Christmas picture books:  the second part of this blog will show how this toy has come to occupy a significant niche in  the American popular imagination.

[i] “Gammal dalahäst funnen vid utgrävning i centrala Falun” SVT Nyheter, July 10, 2020. https://www.svt.se/nyheter/lokalt/dalarna/gammal-dalahast-funnen-vid-utgravning-i-centrala-falun

[ii] From the website Dalahästen: en kulturskatt at http://www.dalahorse.info/index.php/Huvudsida

[iii] Full text in Swedish available online at https://litteraturbanken.se/författare/RydbergV/titlar/LilleViggsAfventyr1875/sida/3/faksimil

[iv] A copy of this is in the Cotsen Euro 20Q 40822.

[v] Cotsen Children’s Library » Euro 20Q 52035

[vi] Cotsen Children’s Library » Euro 20Q 19557