#WhitworthAdvent: The Noble Stag: Ancient Herald of Winter

Doris Taylor (1890-1978), Batik stole, c.1920-1929. Manchester. Accession Number: T.2007.63. Source: the Whitworth

The Stag betokens Wintertime in its traditional representation of the spirit of Yuletide via historically festive designs, translated into ‘Chocolate box’ snow scenes and embossed biscuit tins. More recently, hygge depictions of Nordic Northern winters on cards and wrapping paper have become popular, as have mass produced, flocked, gilded, and decorated, joyful ornaments such as figurines and stag’s heads; favourites, especially in Germany, where the Christmas ornament industry began as early as 1500.

Unsurprisingly, this beautifully fluid stag motif from this early 20th Century Batik stole by painter, embroiderer and teacher, Doris Taylor (1890-1978), could easily make a charming modern day Christmas card. It has Christmas spirit, and we strive to capture and surround ourselves with the very essence of Christmas each year through our seasonal cultures, traditions, and festive vibes.

Many of our most loved Christmas holiday traditions, symbols and practices have mystical roots and folk traditions, even Father Christmas. “Reindeer” is an Old Norse word believed to mean ‘horned animal’ and reindeer are sometimes associated with the ‘Horned God’, a Pagan deity, which is in turn associated with the stag. The stag took on sacred qualities, becoming known as the ‘Sacred Stag’, representing strength, sexuality, and fertility. On occasion this mythology has been associated with Santa’s reindeer.  

It is thought that reindeer have been extinct in the British Isles since the 12th Century and, at present, there are only two species of deer considered native to Britain; the red deer and roe deer, with fallow deer having been here long enough to now be considered naturalised. Nevertheless, despite the disappearance of some deer species in these Isles and the introduction of others, there is one constant; the ‘Horned God’ and similar horned figures, such as Herne the Hunter, continue to be commemorated in neopagan traditions and remembered in British folklore.

By Boxing Day and New Year, as the old moves swiftly on to the new, we trigger urges for frosty winter walks, under low winter sun-tinged skies, over ragged moorland and make pilgrimages through posh estates and stately deer parks – across the length and breadth of the country. 

The Christmas spirit readily turns to New Year cheer. In raising a wee dram to the kindly promise of the New Year, we might keep our gazes fixed on the future, yet with one foot in the past; for on reflection, New Year is never without its darker side. – Rebecca

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