During this holiday season where traditions run so deep, it is an opportune time to consider the traditions one can see in the details often included in custom built homes. From chimneys and porches to carved shutters and ornate moldings often graced with figures and mythical creatures, many of these features have origins dating back to specific cultures.
Prior to the advent of chimneys, fires constructed in homes for mainly heating purposes had holes in roofs or walls especially constructed for smoke to escape. It is unlikely chimneys were constructed prior to the 12th century, but it is known that they were widely used in Italy by the end of the 14th century and well adapted during the Tudor period in England in the 16th century. They were considered notoriously dangerous due to their construction of waddle and daub, and soon the English courts began to demand that all “dangerous” chimneys be reconstructed with brick and mortar; by 1719 all clay chimneys in England were demanded to be re-built with brick.
Front porches are considered uniquely American, emerging in the beginning of the 19th century as families began living in individual homes. But the origin of the word porch has roots in Latin, “porticus” and Greek “portico”, both of which symbolized a columned entry into an ancient temple. In both ancient Roman and Greek times, dwellings often placed columns of covered walkways around interior gardens. Different carnations of the word “porch” such as veranda, loggia, portico and piazza all became interchangeable during Victorian times throughout Europe to connote an enclosed vestibule or covered entrance, but in American terms in the 19th century would refer to a roofed but walled in area contiguously attached to the frame of a house.
Wooden carving on shutters and the eaves of homes typically originated in Russia, Northern European and Scandinavian countries. In old Russia, building of wooden houses was supplemented with decorative carvings in the window and door cases as well as the eaves, and the Russian Izba (or log hut) embodied the idea of family and protection from evil powers while connecting with the environment. The artistic expression in wood designs was especially prevalent in the 19th century, with openwork carving that ranged from geometric designs to more ornate images of people and animals that served as a sort of talisman for protection of evil spirits for the family. The mastery of these Russian carvers dates back to the ancient Slavs and their archaic carvings from the 11th century.
Wooden carvings were an important sculptural medium in Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, used to decorate boats often to strike terror in their maritime enemies. From the Romanesque period (11th -12th centuries) to the Baroque period (15th – 17th century), wood played an important role in the sculptures of England, France and Spain. Its significance from adornment of churches to furniture to home ornamentation is seen and often replicated in present day. It is not unusual to see a dragon protecting the door carved into an eave in Scandinavian homes. In the early 19th century, architects began designing homes in a “swiss chalet” style, and the name actually originated in Germany where the Swiss culture was much admired. The Swiss culture embodied projecting roofs, verandas and gabled roofs, often ornamented with ornate carvings. The Scandinavian variation became known in Norway as “dragon style”, incorporating Viking and medieval art that had ornate gables often decorated with carvings of dragons.
In closing, the more recent tradition of “Santa Claus coming down the chimney” dates back to 1823 with the poem by Clement Mark Moore titled “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”, more commonly known today as “Twas the Night Before Christmas…”