A corn dolly is a small figure made of straw. Corn dollies are part of the folk customs surrounding the grain harvest in Great Britain and much of Europe. In that part of the world, "corn" originally referred to any grain, especially wheat, and it is grain straw — not modern corn — that goes into making corn dollies. When referring to corn dollies, the word "dolly" is probably a corruption of the word "idol."
It was once believed in Europe that the spirit of the corn lived in the growing crop, and the dolly gave the corn spirit shelter after the crop was harvested. The dolly was usually burned or ripped apart in the fields before planting time the next spring. Destroying the dolly released the spirit and allowed it to aid another successful harvest. In some places, custom called for driving the spirit out or destroying it, not sheltering it, but the aim was still to release the spirit from the current harvest so it would return the next year.
Harvesters would make a new corn dolly every year from the last of the straw in the fields. Straw is the stem of the wheat below the kernels of grain. A corn dolly might look vaguely human or might be a heart or other shape. Traditional corn dollies were not very human looking, but dollies made by modern crafters are sometimes more elaborate and have heads and arms.
When older beliefs died out in Europe after the rise of Christianity, people continued to make corn dollies. In Scotland in the 1800s, the dolly was a symbol of ridicule. The farmer who finished harvesting first among his neighbors would make a corn dolly and throw it into the field of one of those still working as a way of making fun of that person. In parts of England, a bundle of straw much like a corn dolly was the center of a harvest festival custom called "crying the neck."
The best straw for dollies and other straw art is hollow and comes from a long stem variety of wheat. Modern wheat varieties have solid stems and are not as suitable for weaving. If straw from older types of wheat cannot be found, solid-stem varieties are usable for simple straw weaving if the stems are long enough. Straw weavers soak the straw in hot water, or soak and then freeze it, to make it more pliable.