While wandering around a Scandinavian Christmas market, you’ll likely come across booths selling carved wooden horses, typically painted in an assortment of bright colors and floral patterns. These traditional Swedish toys are much more than a classic holiday gift or travel souvenir: The Dala horse has become intertwined with the very image of Sweden itself.
The term Dala is short for Dalecarlian; the name alludes to where the horses were first made. The figurines come from the Dalarna (also known as Dalecarlia) region of Sweden, a province in the country’s central area. People began crafting plain, wooden horses as children’s toys in the villages of Bergkarlås, Risa, Vattnäs, and Nusnä in the 17th century. Carvers opted to make horses over other creatures because of the animals’ status as a prized family possession in these rural communities.
Their tiny handmade steeds were a hit. Dala horses’ popularity spread as those who travelled around Sweden peddling crafts began including the toys among their items for sale. As time went on, their look began to evolve; the modern, more colorful creations only became common in the 19th century.
The toys—originally meant to entertain children—entered the national spotlight toward the end of the 1800s. As a response to concerns about Swedes leaving the country for opportunities elsewhere, the Dala horse was deemed an icon to which Swedish identity could be tied.
Two World’s Fairs cemented the wooden trinkets as an emblem of the Nordic country. The Dala horse was used as the visual symbol for Sweden at the 1937 exposition in Paris; later, it became a star of the New York World’s Fair in 1939–40, where a huge painted horse was placed in front of the Swedish pavilion. Similar statues soon began appearing in Swedish communities across the U.S. soon after.
The figurines have come a long way since they were first hand-carved by woodworkers in rural Sweden. Now, you can find Dala horse-themed items in various brick-and-mortar and online shops—even IKEA.