A tomte or nisse is a mythical creature of Scandinavian folklore, believed to take care of a farmer's home and barn and protect it from misfortune, in particular at night, when the housefolk were asleep.
Tomte is the common Swedish name, derived from his place of residence and area of influence: the house lot or tomt. The Finnish name for him is "tonttu". Nisse is the 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 dreng ("Nisse good lad," cf. Robin Goodfellow).
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). In other European folklore, there are many beings similar to the tomte, such as the Scots brownie (elf)|brownie, the German Wichtelmann or the Russian domovoi. The Finnish word tonttu has been borrowed from Swedish.
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.
Despite his smallness, the tomte/nisse possessed an immense strength. Even though he was protective and caring he was easy to offend, and his retributions ranged from a stout box on the ears to the killing of livestock or ruining of the farm's fortune. 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.
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. Like many other mythical creatures, one was also required to please him with gifts – a particular gift was a bowl of porridge on Christmas night. If he wasn't 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.
The tomte is connected to farm animals in general, but his most treasured animal was the horse. Belief had it that you could see which horse was the tomte's favourite as it would be especially well taken care of and healthy. Sometimes the tomte would even braid its hair and tail. (These "tomte braids" were in fact most likely caused by insufficient brushing.) Sometimes actually undoing these braids could mean misfortune or angering the tomte.
He had his dwellings in the burial mounds on the farm, hence the now somewhat archaic Swedish names tomtebisse and tomtekarl, Swedish and Norwegian names tomtegubbe, and the Finnish name tonttu-ukko (litt. House lot man) tomtebonde (bonde=farmer) and the Norwegian Haugkall (Mound man). Thus can the tradition of giving porridge to the tomte at Christmas be a reminescence of ancestral worship. The tomte could also take a ship for his home, and was then known as a skeppstomte/skibsnisse.
The tomte was in ancient times believed to be the "soul" of the first inhabitor of the farm. He who cleared the tomt.
The tomte was not always a popular figure: Like most creatures of folklore he would be seen as heathen and become connected to the Devil. Farmers believing in the house tomte could be seen as worshipping false gods; in a famous 14th century decree Saint Birgitta warns against the worship of tompta gudhi, "tomte gods". 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 tomtar on the farm, doing ungodly work and stealing from the neighbours. These rumours could be very damaging for the farmer who found himself accused.
The modern tomte
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.
The use of the word tomte in Swedish is now somewhat ambiguous, but often when one speaks of "jultomten" or "tomten" one is referring to the more modern version, while if one speaks of "tomtarna" (plural) one could also likely be referring to the more traditional tomtar. The traditional word tomte as 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.
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 (elf)|brownie"). 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.
- Vår svenska tomte, Ebbe Schön (1996), ISBN 91-27-05573-6
- Tomten, poem in Swedish by Viktor Rydberg.