A Christmas themed legend: Nisse and Tomte

As promised in my previous post and in the spirit of Christmas, I would like to share a little research I have done recently regarding the legend of the Nisse and Tomte. Thoroughly ignorant of Scandinavian folklore the existence of these beings was only brought to my attention during a recent West Dean workshop, sadly not because I managed to see one myself but because one of the other attendees created a fantastical sculpture of one and I was prompted to do a little reading.

Both the nisse (usually Norwegian and derived from the name Nils which is the Scandinavian form of “Nicholas”) and tomte (usually Swedish and a word for “homestead man”) are small (anything from a few inches up to 3ft tall as legend has it), solitary, domestic sprites who look after and protect farmsteads and are responsible for the care and welfare of the farm animals. They have long white beards and wear colourful clothes, often red. They are known as “gift bearers” and are therefore considered to be one of the Swedish and Norwegian versions of Santa Claus although not the same thing. While they appear to be caring workaholics who have a particular fondness for pigs, legend has it that they are not easily managed, do not tolerate interference or rudeness from the humans they work for and have a reputation for throwing their toys out of the pram if they don’t get a bowl of Christmas porridge (with butter) on Christmas Eve (sounds a little like me when I used to work in an office environment!) Woe betide any human who does offend one of these beings as their retributions range from small pranks, to killing livestock, and packing their bags and leaving (a sure way to ensure your farm becomes a failure and you are resigned to a life of poverty!).

These sprites appear to have little respect for human law and social niceties, and are not beyond stealing from neighbours to aid the prosperity of the farm in which they are currently residing (so where exactly did that gift come from?). There are also stories of people being driven mad by these mischievous sprites and of poisonous bites resulting in death if magical healing isn’t quickly received. It is also thought that they may be spirits of previous generations who resided in the homestead and possibly represent the “soul” of the first inhabitor.

Looking at modern, popular images of nisse/tomte, they remind me of the painted gnomes that my grandparents used to have in their garden, all rosy cheeked and jolly. However, reading some of the stories about them, I am visualising a more sinister character and I rather like this depiction “Nisse” by Johan Thomas Lundbye (1842).


Some of you (particularly if you are Scandinavian!) may be more familiar with these legends than myself so please feel free to comment below if you have anything to add.  As my regular readers will be aware I find myth and legend fascinating and am always keen to learn more.

I am now settling in for a relaxing Christmas break of knitting, audiobooks and a bit of naughty food and drink. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your company in 2014 and to wish you all a happy holiday and a creative 2015.


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