From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The sleigh was broadcast on 18th December 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
The sleigh has always been a magical thing. According to the poem now known as ‘Twas the night before Christmas, published anonymously in America in 1823, Saint Nicolas travelled in a tiny sleigh. The sight of the jolly old elf, as the poem rather rudely calls him, was made more enchanting because the sleigh was pulled by eight reindeer (a ninth, Rudolph, would make his appearance a century later).
That’s the thing with sleighs. However practical they actually were, they are forever imbued with a mythical quality, thanks to Christmas. Like the way they glide across snow so silently that bells were often attached to warn others of their approach. That sound was immortalised in the song Jingle Bells, written by another American, in praise of winter, which was then appropriated as a popular Christmas song.
The magical status of a sleigh is not a new thing, as evidenced by the finding of not one but four of them in a ninth-century Viking burial site, discovered just south of Oslo in 1904. It was the tomb of two high-status women who were given the honour of being buried in a whole ship packed with treasures. The sleighs, perhaps intended to ferry them to the next world, are richly carved and studded with decorative nails that would have glistened against lavishly-coloured paintwork. The Vikings used dogs to pull their sleighs, as did the Inuits of Greenland, whose sleds with their elongated prows and thin runners, were bound together rather than screwed, as the vibration from moving over sea ice would work the fixings free.
Most memorable, perhaps, is the Russian troika, which simply means a carriage drawn by three horses. These carriages were set high above a structure of rails with metal runners, perfect for the snowbound streets of Moscow and St Petersburg. Catherine the Great’s luxurious sleigh of the 1760s is displayed today in the Kremlin museum and contained a salon, bedroom and library, as well as porcelain stoves to warm it. It was the grandest of nearly two hundred sleighs that ferried the Imperial Court on the two-week journey from St Petersburg to Moscow for Catherine’s coronation. The music that Prokofiev wrote for ‘Lieutenant Kijé’, a 1934 film about the absurdity of the Imperial Court, provided perhaps the sleigh ride music to beat all others.
The real Saint Nicolas had no need for sleighs. He’d been a Christian bishop in 3rd century Greece, his bones now lying in Bari cathedral in Italy. He became known as the protector of children, and the legend grew of him visiting each household in December to urge everyone to feast well in preparation for the privations of the winter ahead and to care for children and the poor. How he travelled was of no consequence. When he morphed into Santa Claus, the Americans emphasised a more materialistic aspect with the doling out of gifts to children who had behaved well, and added the sleigh as the ultimate sprinkling of fairydust. The notion of a beautiful carriage without wheels traversing the night sky was now entrenched. As those who have been carried along in a one-horse open sleigh know, they’re icons of the romantic imagination as much as practicality. Which is something every designer would kill for. Except that would mean no visit from Santa at Christmas.