This blog by Cole Smith
Ever wondered how Saint Nicholas, a native of the mild Mediterranean, got his heavy red suit and bright, white beard? And where did those elves come from, anyway? How did they all migrate from warm, sunny Turkey to the barren North Pole? As missionaries brought the Gospel north to Scandinavia, legends of Saint Nicholas’ kindness and secret gift-giving captured the hearts of locals. The stories were told and retold, and over time picked up a cast of familiar characters, the Nissen, or Tomte.
Pre-Christian tradition held that the farmer who first took possession of a homestead, the one who cleared the trees and first broke ground, would continue to watch over the property after his death. He would be buried in a mound somewhere on the farm, and his spirit was known as the “haugebonde”, or “mound-bound”.
As time passed, the legends evolved, and the farm acquired more spirits, sometimes thought to be several ancestors. These entities would watch over the farm and had an interest in the family. In the case of a move or relocation, the spirits would follow a family to their new home. The collective group of spirits became known as the Nissen, from “niosi” in Norse, meaning “dear little relative”. In Sweden, they were called “tomte”. Nissen were never more than three feet tall, liked to wear red, and sported long, white beards. Sound familiar?
If you were a responsible farmer, you’d have nothing to fear from these guardians. They liked to see the animals and the land treated well. But, if you were lazy, sloppy, or irresponsible, watch out! The Nissen had violent tempers, and would let you know their disapproval in no uncertain terms. Stories circulated of Nissen killing livestock, whooping up on farmhands, and generally wreaking havoc to show their anger and exact revenge. On the other hand, satisfied nissen would lend assistance. Mended harness, clean stables, and gleaming, braided horses’ manes were all signs of a helpful community of spirits. Farmers all agreed: it was important to keep the Nissen happy!
The rising popularity of Christmas brought the custom of “discovering” gifts at the front door. In return, families would leave bowls of porridge with a pat of butter for their Nissen. To hide the butter at the bottom of the bowl would risk the wrath of the farm helpers—so don’t forget!
In 1881, artist Jenny Nystrom illustrated a Christmas poem in the Swedish magazine, Ny Illustrerad Tidning, cementing the image of a white-bearded, red-capped elf into the public consciousness for good. And the Julenisse have been delivering gifts, eating goodies, and watching over good boys and girls ever since.
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