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Tour The Globe With 9 Traditional Dolls From Around The World

Ever wonder what kids in Japan, Russia, or Iran play with? Meet some beloved traditional dolls from different world cultures.

Erica Silverstein · 5 months ago

  • toy
  • travel
DollsAroundWorld

Heeral Chhibber

Most kids aren't exactly obsessed with the architectural landmarks or GDPs of other countries. But when it comes to the toys kids in other parts of the world are playing with — well, who wouldn't want to take a closer look?

Whether you’re shopping for authentic souvenirs from different countries or just taking a virtual world tour, dolls make a great introduction to world cultures and faraway lands. Peek inside the toy boxes of kids around the globe with these nine traditional dolls from around the world.

1. Russia: Matryoshka Dolls

Matryoshka Dolls

Heeral Chhibber

Matyroshka means “little matron,” and these nesting dolls contain generations of little lady dolls all in one neat package. Each wooden doll splits around its middle and opens to contain a smaller doll inside, which in turn has an even smaller doll inside it, and so on, with the last often a tiny baby. Typical sets have 4 to 10 dolls. The traditional dolls are girls wearing peasant dresses, but you can also find sets of fairy tale characters, politicians, and even American and European sports teams.

2. Guatemala: Worry Dolls

Guatemala: Worry Dolls

Heeral Chhibber

Worry dolls, or trouble dolls, are tiny people made of wire and multicolored scraps of wool or cloth. They’re inspired by a Guatemalan legend in which the sun god gives a Mayan princess a gift — the ability to solve any problem. Kids can whisper their fears or problems to the worry dolls and put them under their pillow at night. The dolls either take the worries away or give the child courage to face the problem. (Hmm, I could use a friend like that right about now.) You often see the tiny dolls sold in a small, colored box, but you can find slightly larger versions attached to hair clips and headbands.

3. Hopi Nation: Kachina Dolls

Hopi Nation: Kachina Dolls

Heeral Chhibber

The Hopi people of the American Southwest have a tradition of carving Kachina dolls in the images of the spirits who control nature. The dolls are given to young Hopi girls as gifts, both as decoration and to educate them about the various supernatural beings important to the Hopi culture. The dolls wear brightly colored costumes with symbolic colors and designs, and often have animal heads.

4. Japan: Kokeshi Dolls

Japan: Kokeshi Dolls

Heeral Chhibber

What do you call a doll with no arms and no legs made in Japan? A kokeshi. Imagine vintage 1980s-era Fisher Price people, but made out of wood and sporting traditional Japanese hair styles and clothing, and you get the picture. The cute dolls have always been toys, though now they’re collectibles. If you want to make your own, you can find plenty of online tutorials.

5. Dominican Republic: Muñecas Limé

Muñecas Limé

Heeral Chhibber

In the Dominican Republic, clay sculptors create faceless dolls, called Muñecas Limé, who wear beautiful dresses and carry flowers, pots, or fruits. The dolls are faceless because they represent the mix of people — African, European, and indigenous — that make up the Dominican Republic, and there’s not just one face that dominates the culture. These traditional dolls make a thoughtful gift for families who love collecting art from different world cultures, since the munecas are not meant to be toys.

6. Catalonia, Spain: Caganer

Catalonia, Spain: Caganer

Heeral Chhibber

What kid doesn’t love a doll that poops? It might seem far-fetched, but the Catalonian people who live in northwest Spain have a tradition of placing caganer dolls in their Christmas nativity scenes. The caganer traditionally wears a white shirt and a Catalan-style hat. More importantly, he’s bare-bottomed, with his trousers around his ankles, as if he’s in the act of, well, going #2. There are competing theories about why this tradition came to be, but hit any Christmas market in the region and you can find both traditional and pop culture-themed caganers. Want to add a squatting Dalai Lama, Donald Trump, SpongeBob Square Pants, or Princess Leia to your holiday display? You’ll find them and more famous faces on Catalonian caganers.

7. Mexico: Maria Dolls

Mexico: Maria Dolls

Heeral Chhibber

Rag dolls are popular the world over, but these huggable dolls in local costumes or traditional dress are especially lovable. The Mexican Maria, often said to have originated with the Mazahua and Otomí people of Amealco, can be found in many different forms and costumes. But the most well-known Marias are smiley girl dolls with soft bodies, braided hair with lots of ribbons, and indigenous-style dress. Travel to Amealco to visit its museum of handcrafted dolls and participate in the annual Handcrafted Doll Festival.

8. South Africa: Ndebele Beaded Dolls

Ndebele Dolls

Heeral Chhibber

Cone-shaped Ndebele dolls from Africa have simple bodies decorated in elaborate and colorful beadwork. Some are cone-shaped, while others stand on legs with flat feet. The Ndebele people give the dolls to propose marriage, or as treasured gifts for newlyweds. Ndebele girls also construct the dolls to practice their own beadworking skills.

9. Iran: Layli Dolls

Layli Dolls

Heeral Chhibber

Once upon a time in Persia, a young poet fell in love with a beautiful girl named Layla. He was so crazy in love with her that the townspeople nicknamed him Majnun, or "possessed by Jinn" (jinn is a word for "genie"). However, her father refused to let them marry, and the poet left his home to wander madly in the desert. They both die heartbroken — the end. This Romeo and Juliet-esque tale gave rise to the Layli puppet dolls of Iran, which are hinged and can be made to dance by pulling on strings. The dolls are often dressed as brides, with sequined dresses decorated with ribbons and glass beads. Perhaps when you play, you can give your Layli a happier ending!