Beware the Nissen

105182105411111CDPby Neva Bodin

There are men, usually less than four feet tall, who wear a great white beard and usually a red pointed hat who are very important to Scandinavian people. They are Nisser, tomte, or Nisse, (or singular is Nissen). Really a barn elf or gnome.

The Nisser in my sister’s apartment.

Nisser began as very small people, only inches high. They are now believed to be shorter than the average person, and dress in britches and knee high socks, a vest or sweater and usually a red knitted cap. There is always a twinkle in their eye.There are three of them looking at me right now.

It seems that every nationality or tribe has its legends. These legends usually include unusually big (or little) people with super powers, who can decide the fate of people or animals they come in contact with. They often require something of the people who know of them, a sacrifice, treat, or ritual that acknowledges their power. I believe this stems from the “God Hole” or need for a spiritual connection to something or someone that sits inside us.

The Nissen is a gnome-like man, who will bring luck to farmers in Norway if they give him a treat of porridge or rommegrot, (a Norwegian pudding I make at Christmas from cream, flour, butter and milk, served with melted butter, sugar and cinnamon on top), or lefse (a Norwegian flat bread made with mashed potatoes, cream and flour that looks like a tortilla that I also make at Christmas) and ale.

If a nissen is thwarted in his pranks, (such as his braiding of the horses’ manes or tails) the farmer may have so much bad luck, he may have to leave the farm. In the past, some believe a nissen was the spirit of the first farmer who cleared the land. Nisser bring gifts to well-behaved children at Christmas. This probably morphed from the Bishop St. Nicholas in Myra, Turkey , circa 300 A.D.

St. Nicholas did many good deeds and some miracles were attributed to him. After his death, his reputation became fuel for legends and today’s Santa Claus (or St. Nick). Some historians say Nikolaus in one language translated to Nils in Danish, and nissen in Norwegian.

There is a tale that a maid in Hallingdal, Norway didn’t really believe in the nissen, so instead of leaving his treat in the barn, ate it herself. The nissen made her dance with him by holding her hands, swinging her around and around until she was very ill and in one version looked beat up.

So, even if Christmas eve is a cold, dark night, don’t forget to leave a bowl of porridge and ale in the barn (if you have one) for your nissen, and enjoy a year of good luck. But perhaps before that, you should leave something for the “Great Pumpkin!”


14 thoughts on “Beware the Nissen

  1. I’m with Doris. Wonderful legend. These old myths say so much about a culture and how the people thought back then. I have to say that they were rough on self-centered maidens.


    1. It would be fun to know how these stories get started wouldn’t it? Usually there’s a grain of truth in their origin somewhere. Perhaps that maiden met someone else she shouldn’t have met! Thanks, Abbie, Neva


  2. I’ve always loved the tales about leprechauns and the little people. I wonder if they come from finding artifacts from prehistoric peoples. The nissen does sound a lot like St. Nick, at least at Christmas. Fun post.


  3. What a fun legend! Thanks for sharing, Neva! I enjoy learning about the legends and traditions of different cultures. And so many practices have blended to form our holiday traditions. It’s fun to find out where they come from.


  4. What and enchanting tale, Neva. I loved learning about the Nissen and their place in Norway’s history. I am also fascinated with the traditional recipes you make at Christmas. Thank you for sharing some of your heritage with us!


  5. I’ve never heard of the nissen- thank you, Neva, for a new creature! It’s good that these legendary men/gnomes are not forgotten and are now shared by many via the intenet. As you say there are many similarities to be found across the globe. ps I love the images of the nissen.


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