Thursday, 22 December 2016

Thursday 22nd December - Angel or Fairy?

Okay, so here's a thorny issue - what's the difference between a Christmas angel and a Christmas fairy? I would say without question that I have an angel on the top of my tree.  Look, here she is...

It's not very clear, but she has golden wings but no halo...
She has served us well over around 15 years and I think she's lovely.  We only have a little tree most years (it cost £5 from Matalan in 2000 and my mother-in-law hates it, so it's a winner for us) so she sits on top of it very nicely indeed, being light as a feather.  However, I have noticed on social media that some people have been referring to the 'fairy' on the top of their tree, and I was wondering if there was a difference or is it just language...
The Christmas Tree Fairy (1930-40, published 1985) Cicely Mary Barker
I grew up with Cicely Mary Barker's Flower Fairies and this is one of her Fairies of Winter. The last stanza of her poem says
A dolly-fairy stands on top,
Till children sleep; then she
(A live one now!) from bough to bough
Goes gliding silently.

That is unequivocally a fairy, a little magical girl who pretends to be a doll until the children go to sleep. So, are fairies connected with dolls?  I remember in the My Naughty Little Sister stories by Dorothy Edwards (written in the 1950s, set in the 1920s), the narrator has a fairy doll which she is proud of (and which is nearly destroyed by her satanic sibling).  So, maybe Christmas fairies are linked to a specific era...

Christmas at Osborne House, 1896
Look at the size of that angel!
Christmas trees aren't that ancient, as we know.  Although early nineteenth century Northern American settlers brought evergreen boughs into their homes and churches at Christmas, the Christmas tree as we know it is linked with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their many, many children (1840s)
Bert and Vickie had a tree, starting a fashion among the bourgeois to bring in a tree and decorate it.  I wonder how many festive fires were started buy those little candles twinkling on tree branches?  Anyway, as we can see from the illustrations of the time, the top of the tree was often empty (being so high up).  Otherwise, the choices were a star (referencing the star over Bethlehem) or an Angel (again, for over the nativity).  If you own a nativity set, you can't call it a holy party without an angel.  I own three.  I have no shame.  I'd happily own more. This is one of mine...

This one is called 'Mary Jazz Hands and Gloria the Angel'. The angel in this set is very traditional, as you can see, with golden wings.  The Playmobil one is slightly less traditional...

The wings are gold and in her hand is a wand. Ah-ha!  A wand!  Looking back at our Christmas Tree Fairy, she also has a wand, so that obviously is one that is shared.  With the angel, the wand is shorthand for the Star of Bethlehem, rather than a magic wand that will make you a party dress at short notice.

1950s Fairy/Angel for Christmas Tree topping...
So both angels and fairies can have star-topped wands, so that isn't any help.  How about what's on top of their heads?  The 1950s angel above has a circlet on her head, but that's not the same as a halo.  Often angels, like the one in the Playmobil set and Gloria, don't have halos, so that is no indicator, but a fairy does tend to come with a lovely fairy crown.

Another mid-century fairy/angel
So, a pointy crown is a good way of telling an angel from a fairy.  Your average angel isn't going to be swanning round with a crown on, that's a tad ostentatious.  I can't see Gabriel popping on a tiara before announcing a virgin birth. That's not his style at all...

Early twentieth century Christmas card
Hang on, I've seen a few Christmas images where the angel is wearing a circle of flowers.  What's all that about?! Damn it!  Okay, so sparkly crown equals fairy. If she is wearing nothing on her head, a halo or a circle of flowers, then she's probably an angel.  Clear so far? Jolly good.

Just to confuse matters, here's a Christmas tree on top of an angel...
Anyway, back to our Christmas tree story.  So Queen Vickie brought a tree into fashion but that doesn't mean that everyone had one.  In fact, there was a charity that provided great big ones for communities so you'd have one in your neighbourhood but not necessarily in your home, especially if you were poor.  It was definitely more towards the middle of the last century before people started doing it all for themselves at home, which would have coincided with the mass production of plastic-type decorations.  It also is around the same time that toys became more accessible in cheaper materials, and 'fairy dolls' became fashionable.  A conflation between a fairy, in her white sparkly dress, wings and wand, and the angel is easy to see.  A fairy is more child friendly, less sombre, more modern in many ways.

Nothing says Christmas like not burning down the house
Of course, with the twentieth century came a change in Christmas tree lighting.  Out went the candles and in came electric lights which were marginally less likely to burn down your house.  I think it might be a British peculiarity that we call them 'fairy-lights', but that in turn has to be linked to the idea that fairies are in the tree, and possibly on top of it. And why not?  The notion of fairies, sprites and little folk are far more ancient than our feathered friends, and possibly to some people are one and the same.  It might be one of those things, that even before Christmas trees, we've been confusing and conflating one winged being with another...

What the flip is all that about?!
Although bizarre, this image brings up another possible identification method - wings.  Mr Walker suggested the difference between an angel and a fairy is their wings.  An angel will always have feather wings and a fairy tends towards gauzy, insect-like wings. Fairies were less connected with Christmas in Victorian times, although the Victorians loved a fairy as much as everyone else, so they do crop up...

Okay then, to sum up: If they are Victorian, then they are angel, unless they are a fairy. If they have feathery wings they are probably an angel, if they have insect-like wings, then they are probably a fairy.  If they carry a wand, then they are either.  If they have a crown on, then they are probably a fairy, and if they are wearing a flower ring or nothing, then probably an angel.  All clear?  Well, quite.

Okay, one hard and fast rule exists and that is if the figure has a halo then they are definitely an angel.


See you tomorrow...


  1. Dear Kirsty
    Thanks for clearing that up!
    Best wishes

  2. I doubt a REAL faerie would wear a crown. Iron stings them!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx