A tomte, nisse or tomtenisse (Sweden) (Swedish pronunciation: [ˈtɔ̀mːtɛ]), nisse (Norway and Denmark) (Norwegian pronunciation: [ˈnìsːɛ] or Danish pronunciation: [ˈnesə]) or tonttu (Finland) is a mythological creature from Scandinavian folklore typically associated with the winter solstice and the Christmas season. It is generally no taller than three feet, has a long white beard and wears colorful clothes. It is known as a gift bearer and is considered the Swedish and Norwegian version of Santa Claus.
History and cultural relevance
The tomte was preceded by another mythological creature: the Yule goat. Traditionally, these Yule goats appeared on Christmas Eve. Fathers dressed up as this figure and knocked on the door of their homes to hand out presents to their children.
The Yule goat was replaced by the tomte or nisse, which is likened to a garden gnome. According to tradition, tomtes secretly live in houses and act as their guardian. If treated well, they protect children and animals from evil and misfortune, and they also help with chores and farm work. However, they are known to have a temper, especially when they are offended. If they are insulted, they usually play tricks and can kill livestock.
Tomtes delivers gifts through the door, in accordance with the Swedish/Norwegian tradition of the visiting Santa Claus who enters homes to hand out presents. They are also commonly seen with a pig, another popular Christmas decorative piece in Sweden. People who believe in the Tomte usually leave behind a bowl of porridge with butter for the creature to eat after he leaves behind the gifts.
The Swedish and Norwegian name tomte is derived from the term for a place of residence and area of influence: the house lot or tomt. Nisse is a more common name in Norwegian, Danish and the Scanian dialect in southernmost Sweden; it is a nickname for Nils, and its usage in folklore comes from expressions such as Nisse god dräng ("Nisse good lad", cf. Robin Goodfellow). Other names are tuftekall, tomtegubbe or haugebonde ("mound farmer"), all names connecting the being to the origins of the farm (the building ground), or a burial mound. Those names are remembrances of the being's origins in an ancestral cult.
The tomte/nisse was often imagined as a small, elderly man (size varies from a few inches to about half the height of an adult man), often with a full beard; dressed in the everyday clothing of a farmer. However, there are also folktales where he is believed to be a shapeshifter able to take a shape far larger than an adult man, and other tales where the tomte/nisse is believed to have a single, cyclopean eye. In modern Denmark, nisses are often seen as beardless, wearing grey and red woolens with a red cap. Since nisses are thought to be skilled in illusions and sometimes able to make themselves invisible, one was unlikely to get more than brief glimpses of him no matter what he looked like. Norwegian folklore states that he has four fingers, and sometimes with pointed ears and eyes glowing in the dark.
Despite his smallness, the tomte/nisse possessed an immense strength. Even though he was protective and caring he was easily offended, and his retributions ranged from small pranks like a stout box on the ears to a more sociopathical punishment like killing off the livestock or ruining of the farm's fortune. The tomte/nisse was a traditionalist who did not like changes in the way things were done at the farm. Another easy way to offend him was rudeness: farm workers swearing, urinating in the barns, or not treating the creatures well would be soundly thrashed. If anyone spilled something on the floor in the house it was wise to shout a warning to the tomte below. An angry tomte is featured in the popular children's book by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (Nils Holgersson's Wonderful Journey Through Sweden). The tomte turns the naughty boy Nils into a tomte in the beginning of the book, and Nils then travels across Sweden on the back of a goose.
One was also required to please the spirit with gifts (see Blót) – a particular gift was a bowl of porridge on Christmas night. If the tomte was not given his payment, he would leave the farm or house, or engage in mischief such as tying the cows' tails together in the barn, turning objects upside-down, and breaking things (like a troll). The tomte liked his porridge with a pat of butter on the top. In an often retold story, a farmer put the butter underneath the porridge. When the tomte of his farmstead found that the butter was missing, he was filled with rage and killed the cow resting in the barn. But, as he thus became hungry, he went back to his porridge and ate it, and so found the butter at the bottom of the bowl. Full of grief, he then hurried to search the lands to find another farmer with an identical cow, and replaced the former with the latter.
In another tale a Norwegian maid decided to eat the porridge herself, and ended up severely beaten by the nisse. The being swore: "Have you eaten the porridge for the tomte, you have to dance with him!". The farmer found her nearly lifeless the morning after.
The tomte is connected to farm animals in general, but his most treasured animal was the horse. Belief had it that one could see which horse was the tomte's favourite as it would be especially healthy and well taken care of. Sometimes the tomte would even braid its hair and tail. Sometimes actually undoing these braids could mean misfortune or angering the tomte.
Some stories tell how the nisse could drive people mad, or bite them. The bite from a nisse was poisonous, and otherworldly healing was required. As the story goes, the girl who was bitten withered and died before help arrived.
The tomte after Christianization
The tomte was in ancient times believed to be the "soul" of the first inhabitor of the farm; he who cleared the tomt (house lot). He had his dwellings in the burial mounds on the farm, hence the now somewhat archaic Swedish names tomtenisse and tomtekarl, the Swedish and Norwegian tomtegubbe and tomtebonde ("tomte farmer"), the Norwegian haugkall ("mound man"), and the Finnish tonttu-ukko (lit. "house lot man"). Thus, the tradition of giving porridge to the tomte at Christmas is a remainder of ancestral worship.
The tomte was not always a popular figure, particularly during and after the Christianization of Scandinavia. Like most creatures of folklore he would be seen as heathen (pre-Christian) and be demonized and connected to the Devil. Farmers believing in the house tomte could be seen as worshipping false gods or demons; in a famous 14th century decree Saint Birgitta warns against the worship of tompta gudhi, "tomte gods" (Revelationes, book VI, ch. 78). Folklore added other negative beliefs about the tomte, such as that having a tomte on the farm meant you put the fate of your soul at risk, or that you had to perform various non-Christian rites to lure a tomte to your farm.
The belief in a tomte's tendency to bring riches to the farm by his unseen work could also be dragged into the conflicts between neighbours. If one farmer was doing far better for himself than the others, someone might say that it was because of him having a tomte on the farm, doing "ungodly" work and stealing from the neighbours. These rumours could be very damaging for the farmer who found himself accused, much like accusations of witchcraft during the Inquisitions.
The tomte/nisse shares many aspects with other Scandinavian wights such as the Swedish vättar (from the Old Norse landvættir) or the Norwegian tusser. These beings are social, however, whereas the tomte is always solitary (though he is now often pictured with other tomtar). Some synonyms of tomte in Swedish and Norwegian include gårdbo ("(farm)yard-dweller"), gardvord ("yard-warden", see vörðr), god bonde ("good farmer"), fjøsnisse ("barn gnome") or gårdsrå ("yard-spirit"). The tomte could also take a ship for his home, and was then known as a skeppstomte/skibsnisse. In other European folklore, there are many beings similar to the tomte, such as the Scots and English brownie, Northumbrian English hob, the German Heinzelmännchen or the Russian domovoi. The Finnish word tonttu has been borrowed from Swedish.
The tomte is one of the most familiar creatures of Scandinavian folklore, and he has appeared in many works of Scandinavian literature. With the romanticisation and collection of folklore during the 19th century, the tomte would gain popularity. In the English editions of the fairy tales of H. C. Andersen the word nisse has been inaccurately translated as goblin (a more accurate translation is brownie or hob).
The modern tomte
In the 1840s the farm's nisse became the bearer of Christmas presents in Denmark, and was then called julenisse (Yule Nisse). In 1881, the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning published Viktor Rydberg's poem "Tomten", where the tomte is alone awake in the cold Christmas night, pondering the mysteries of life and death. This poem featured the first painting by Jenny Nyström of this traditional Swedish mythical character which she turned into the white-bearded, red-capped friendly figure associated with Christmas ever since. Shortly afterwards, and obviously influenced by the emerging Father Christmas traditions as well as the new Danish tradition, a variant of the tomte/nisse, called the jultomte in Sweden and julenisse in Norway, started bringing the Christmas presents in Sweden and Norway, instead of the traditional julbock (Yule Goat).
Gradually, commercialism has made him look more and more like the American Santa Claus, but the Swedish jultomte, the Norwegian julenisse, the Danish julemand and the Finnish joulupukki (in Finland he is still called the Yule Goat, although his animal features have disappeared) still has features and traditions that are rooted in the local culture. He doesn't live on the North Pole, but perhaps in a forest nearby, or in Denmark he lives on Greenland, and in Finland he lives in Lapland; he doesn’t come down the chimney at night, but through the front door, delivering the presents directly to the children, just like the Yule Goat did; he is not overweight; and even if he nowadays sometimes rides in a sleigh drawn by reindeer, instead of just walking around with his sack, his reindeer don’t fly - and in Sweden, Denmark and Norway some still put out a bowl of porridge for him on Christmas Eve. He is still often pictured on Christmas cards and house and garden decorations as the little man of Jenny Nyström's imagination, often with a horse or cat, or riding on a goat or in a sled pulled by a goat, and for many people the idea of the farm tomte still lives on, if only in the imagination and literature. The use of the word tomte in Swedish is now somewhat ambiguous, but often when one speaks of jultomten (definite article) or tomten (definite article) one is referring to the more modern version, while if one speaks of tomtar (plural) or tomtarna (plural, definite article) one could also likely be referring to the more traditional tomtar. The traditional word tomte lives on in an idiom, referring to the human caretaker of a property (hustomten), as well as referring to someone in one's building who mysteriously does someone a favour, such as hanging up ones laundry. A person might also wish for a little hustomte to tidy up for them. A tomte stars in one of author Jan Brett's children's stories, "Hedgie's Surprise".
Tomtar/nisser often appear in Christmas calendar TV series and other modern fiction. In some versions the tomtar are portrayed as very small; in others they are human-sized. The tomtar usually exist hidden from humans and are often able to use magic.
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