Design icons: the sleigh

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.

Categories: Design, Icons, Other, radio, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Thanks for the extra info, which lends even further enchantment to this icon which iscacknowledged throghout the world….at least where snow decides to fall in winter…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

La petite musique des vendredis

Le blog culturel d'Hélène Cascaro- arts visuels, cinéma, patrimoine, artisanat d'art, architecture,...


This site is the bee's knees

Avisha Rasminda

Hi, I'm Avisha Rasminda Twenty-Two years old, Introduce Myself As A Author , Painter , A Poet.

Ananda Only

an empty space between silence & stillness

A r e w e t h e r e y e t ?

Diversions, detours and discoveries

Nick Alexander

Author of Perfectly Ordinary People, From Something Old, The Road to Zoe, You Then Me Now, Things We Never Said, The Bottle of Tears, The Other Son, The Photographer's Wife, The Half-Life of Hannah, the 50 Reasons Series. And more...

Dr David T Evans, OBE NTF PFHEA RN(T)

Sexual health matters! It really does!

Dr. Eric Perry’s Blog

Motivate | Inspire | Uplift

Cole Moreton

Writer and broadcaster, Interviewer of the Year for the Mail, winner of Radio Academy gold with BBC Radio 4

British Wildlife & Photography

Place, Plots and Plans

The PlaceMatt Blog

viewer site

Barbara Heath & Malcolm Enright - our viewer site blog

kirilson photography

the stories behind the pictures, and vice versa

Not-So-Modern Girl

Thoughts of a twenty-something girl navigating her way one blog post at a time

Anthony Hillin

Training, Facilitation and Policy development

Notes from the U.K.

Exploring the spidery corners of a culture and the weird stuff that tourist brochures ignore.


T.V/Movie News & Reviews

SAVING OUR TREES - Marrickville municipality

Community Tree Watch - working to protect healthy public trees in Marrickville municipality from inappropriate removal


Film Score Reviews by Jonathan Broxton since 1997

A life in books

Book news, reviews and recommendations

150 great things about the Underground

An unofficial birthday salute to a public transport titan

Mistakes & Adventures

What I've always wanted


Literary Geography

UNSW Built Environment's Blog

Information from students and staff at Built Environment at the University of New South Wales, Sydney Australia.

joe moran's words

on the everyday, the banal and other important matters

The Back Road Chronicles

Curious soul...and it makes me wanna take the back roads!


My occasionally weird life in France

Wee Notions

Notes on a napkin

Philip Butler Photography

Architecture & Observations

Susie Trexler

Secret Knowledge of Spaces

Rebecca Renner

Welcome to Gator Country

kidlat habagat

Portraits of Urban life


DynamicStasis is basically an attempt to think about and discuss integrity, beauty, and delight - in architecture and elsewhere.

%d bloggers like this: