Friday, December 24, 2010

The Julenisse

In traditional Scandinavian folklore, the tomte or nisse was small supernatural figure, not unlike the English brownie or hob. Like the brownie, he tended to care for the farmstead and all of its animals, and like a brownie he could have a terrible temper if insulted or slighted. In the 1840's in Sweden the bringer of Christmas gifts became the nisse, and was the called the Yule Nisse, or Julenisse. In 1881 Swedish poet Viktor Rydberg published a poem called Tomten, accompanied by a picture by Jenny Nystrom, showing a red-capped friendly figure contemplating life alone on a cold snowy Christmas Eve. This solidified the image in the Scandinavian imagination, much as Clement Moore's poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" did to Santa Claus in America; it is the figure perpetuated in the book Gnomes (Tomten in the authors' original language). The Julenisse is often shown accompanied by the Yule Goat, another traditional figure. Over time, of course, the Juelenisse has become influenced by popular concepts of Santa Claus. But the influence could go both ways: the tomten might have contributed to the concept of Santa's Christmas elves.

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