Tomte (Swedish) or Tonttu (Finnish, also called Nisse in Norway) are solitary, mischievous domestic spirits, responsible for the protection and welfare of a farmstead and its buildings. Tomte are folklore creatures originally believed to stem from the soul of the first farm owner, then becoming a spirit figure, ensuring the farm’s continuous care. Tomte have a love for tradition, they don’t like change. They are ancestral figures who demand respect. Farms were often isolated and inhabitants lived through long, dark winters; the tomte figures sprang from their imaginations and became companions to keep solitude at bay. Tomte literally means ‘homestead man’ and is derived from the word ‘tomt’ which means homestead or building.
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Nisse, as he is called in Norway, is derived from the name Nils, which is the Scandinavian form of St. Nicholas. A tomte is described as a little old man, three feet high, with a long white beard, wearing grey, brown or navy clothes with traditional boots and sporting a bright red cap on his head. There are different dress codes for the different types of tomtes. The ones living in the stables with the animals wear mostly grey clothes while the ones in the main house are dressed more neatly, combining some colour with the grey, such as blue or dark green.
There are tomte residing in the pantry and the barn, watching over the household and farm. They are responsible for the care of the house and farm animals, especially the much-valued horses. The tomte have an enormous capacity for work but will not tolerate anyone’s interference. A sure way to offend a tomte is rudeness. Maids or farm workers swearing, dirty outhouses and stables, or not treating creatures well are all things that would incur his disapproval. If anyone spills anything on the floor of the house, it is advised to shout a warning to the tomte so that he doesn’t fall into the puddle. If he is ever offended in any way, he could play all kinds of pranks such as binding all cows’ tails together, turning objects upside down or breaking things.
It is believed that a clean and orderly home or farm is an indication that a domestic tomte spirit resides there. When people moved from the countryside into the cities they brought their tomte with them. He sleeps under the floorboards during spring and summer and starts waking up when the days get long and cold around the winter solstice. Then he starts preparing the home for Christmas, cleaning, washing, ironing, preparing all Christmas food, baking and sweet making. His presence is very much cherished by city dwellers and country folks alike, as it is fortunate to have an able tomte in ones home. Tomtar require very little from humans they work for. They demand only the respect and trust of the homeowner and a bowl of julgröt (Christmas porridge) with butter for Christmas eve. These spirits though will not remain in a home where respect is lacking and thus the farm or home will not thrive and the inhabitants will be reduced to poverty. A tomte considers porridge his due and loves butter. In the old days, butter was a luxury, consumed only on special occasions. The tale of the Tomte who got no butter on his Christmas porridgeillustrates the consequences of tampering with his favourite meal. Legend has it that one Christmas eve, a servant girl decided to play a trick on the tomte. She hid the butter for his porridge at the bottom of the bowl. When tomte saw, there was no butter on his Christmas porridge, he went to the shed and killed the best cow. He wanted to show them that he did not appreciate being begrudged a little bit of butter. He returned to the barn to eat the porridge anyway. When he discovered the butter at the bottom of the bowl, he felt so bad that he walked to the neighbour’s farm, took their best cow, and led her back to the stable of the cow he had killed. According to folktales, domestic spirits often steal from a neighbour to increase the prosperity of the farm where they make their home. This is demonstrated in the story ‘The tomte who stole fodder’.
The spirit of the tomte is still very much alive today both in towns and in the countryside. He is a welcome invisible companion when the days get darker and longer and one has to start all the many preparations for Christmas. From the tomte figure, the Scandinavians adopted the St. Nicolas figure or the popular representation of Father Christmas (as introduced by Coca Cola in their early advertising). Here our tomte is portrayed as an older, good natured, adult-sized man (unsurprisingly the size of an uncle or father) with a long white beard and a red hat and suit. He carries a sack of toys on his back, visits children in their homes on Christmas Eve and always asks, “Are there any good children here?” Many believe he lives at the North Pole, where he has his workshop. Tomte is so dear to Scandinavian hearts that the romantic Swedish novelist Victor Rydberg has written a poem in his honor, published in 1881. Here the tomte is alone and awake on Christmas night, pondering the mysteries of life and death. This poem was illustrated by Jenny Nyström (around 1885), who with her romantic creations, triggered the fantasies of young and old. We will always cherish the tomte as it keeps our spirits up during the dark winter nights leading up to Christmas.
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