Wednesday, 20 December 2006


Tomte by Jenny Nystrom

A tomte or nisse is a mythical creature of Scandinavian folklore, believed to take care of a farmer's home and childs and protect it from misfortune, in particular at night, when the housefolk were asleep.

The tomte/nisse was often imagined as a small, elderly man (exact 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. Since he was thought to be skilled in illusions and able to make himself invisible, one was unlikely to get more than brief glimpses of him no matter what he looked like.

In the 1840's the farm's "nisse" became the bearer of Christmas presents in Denmark, and was then called "julenisse". 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" (as he is more often called today) 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 many in Sweden still put out a bowl of porridge for him on Christmas Eve.



Viktor Rydberg

Midvinternattens köld är hård,

stjärnorna gnistra och glimma.

Alla sova i enslig gård

djupt under midnattstimma.

Månen vandrar sin tysta ban,

snön lyser vit på fur och gran,

snön lyser vit på taken.

Endast tomten är vaken.