(Having spent more time than I have trying to determine whether “pinecone/ pine cone” is one word or two, I’m opting for two). Along with the Christmas tree, there is no more omnipresent natural motif at Christmas time than the pine cone, which is rather ironic, given its decidedly pagan roots. In classical mythology, the pine cone is most prominently featured on the thyrsus, the staff held by Dionysus and his bacchanalian cohorts. The thyrsus is made from a stalk of fennel topped by a pine cone, representing the farm, the forest, and all sorts of fertility; in both classical and more modern imagery it is more representative of revelry than religion.
With the coming of Christianity, the pine cone fades into the background as a natural motif and a way to bring some “life” indoors during the long winter. I’ve seen pine cones in medieval manuscripts, but I think they become more apparent in early modern decorative arts. Pine cone knobs are common features of eighteenth-century porcelain, like this beautiful coffee pot from the 1730s. Fabrics and wallpapers also featured pine cones in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as they do today.
Cotton Pine Cone fabric from the Whispering Pines Catalog.
Even if pedestrian pine cones don’t make it into the final product, they often served as objects of study for artists. The two charming studies (made between 1950-75) by Samuel Chamberlain (also a brilliant photographer, whose Salem Interiors remains one of my favorite books) in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art illustrate his composition process. The pine cone comes into its own in the recent drypoint by Jake Muirhead, from the Old Print Gallery.
Pine cones remain a popular element of seasonal decor because they’re so affordable (free!), accessible and flexible: you can make ornaments, garlands, swags, topiaries, tablescapes, and wreaths out of pine cones, or just scatter them around. And when the holidays are over and the glitter goes away, the pine cones can remain until the Spring, when more signs of life begin to appear. Here are a few pine cone items that transcend holiday decor, and could (I think) be made at home (relatively) easily.
Pine cone garland from Anthropologie, map “pine cone” ornament from Turtles and Tails, and rustic pine cone mirror from Wisteria.