Have you ever wondered what Christmas might be like without Christmas plush toys? No more teddy bears dressed up to look like Santa Clause? No more reindeer with red, ‘shiny’ noses? No more penguins with bright red hats and scarves? It very well might become a ‘dismal’ holiday, especially for those that particularly look forward to the vast array of Christmas stuffed animals that become available at this time of the year. The holiday would, of course, still go on, with or without the festive soft toys, but let’s hope it never gets to that.
Long before soft toys ever became an idea, let alone were dressed up to commemorate Christmas, dolls, as playthings, had already well established themselves in history as part of the core group of long-standing toys. There have been disagreements over the years as to the purpose of the earliest dolls; Max Von Boehn, the German cultural historian, wrote in 1929 that they were “originally made and used primarily as votive objects for worship;” Constance Eileen King, the chronicler of the history of dolls, maintains that “given children’s ability to mimic adult activities, they would have made dolls to play with, copying the idol figures.” King goes on to say that the dolls made in Egypt were nowhere near as complex looking as the ones made to look like human images used for religious offerings or decoration and because of this differentiation in both looks and the way in which they were made, they must be defined as things to play with. It is true, however, that dolls have in fact been made to represent religious icons – the Virgin Mary and other biblical figures, for example. When churches during the English Reformation were raided in the 16th century, small wax figures that were left behind were taken by children to play with.
In order to get an idea of what some ancient dolls might have looked like, we need only to look at some recent examples of some of them; in the 19th century, dolls that were made in the Sudan and Angola, looked very much like those that were made some 4,000 years earlier and still others that continue to be made today. These dolls were fashioned out of sticks which had fabric wrapped around them like clothing and had heads made of wax or rags that had been wound, and string for hair. There were others that had bodies made from dried husks of maize. There has also been a long standing tradition throughout the world, in making dolls from plaited dried leaves. The ancient Egyptians had dolls which were made with limbs that moved and were placed with bodies in their graves so they would accompany them into the afterlife. There were also dolls during this same period that were made of linen or wood and were stuffed with papyrus leaves. They also had embroidered faces and wore clothes that could be changed.
Before dolls ever became mass produced, they were made from a variety of materials including bone, wooden spoons, loofah, cloth, pegs, and just about anything else that could be found in the environment. Both the painting and weaving of dried leaves and grasses continues to be a worldwide craft in which dolls are still made. Pam leaves are dried in Indonesia and made into cream-colored dolls and then they are painted in bright colors. In England, in 1901, a child living in East End London made a doll from a shoe with the sole acting as the face. The body was made up from the rest of the shoe and was then wrapped in shabby cloth. For the eyes, nose, and mouth, nails were hammered into the heel. Tacks were attached to the sole to make a hairline and finally, long thin arms hung down at the dolls side.
It wasn’t until around 1900, when the idea for soft dolls was at its beginning stages. While Käthe Kruse, a trained actor in Berlin who married a sculptor, was changing the very look of dolls, in 1894, Margarete Steiff, the creator of the first teddy bear, was also making dolls made of felt in Giengen, Germany, from cut-off felt material from a factory. A range of dolls were produced including girls and soldiers and they had flat feet so they could stand up. Later on the Steiff company produced four different size hedgehogs which had human characteristics, called Micki and Mecki. They had rubber hedgehog-like heads, faces that smiled, and felt, human-like bodies.
It’s hard to say where Christmas plush toys would have been had Margarete Steiff not invented that first bear. Given the history of dolls, it’s quite likely someone would have come up with the idea for a soft toy at some point in history. And, since dolls are typically used for dress-up, with their clothes changing as often as their human owner can manage it, that very idea wouldn’t have been such a far-reaching one for plush toys. It would have only been a matter of time until Christmas plush toys began to resemble all things representing the holiday, especially Santa Clause. And, whether or not you have a particular interest in Christmas plush toys, they’re nothing if not something different to have around during the holidays.