Before There Was Rudolph, There Was a Yule Goat!
As we prepare for our Scandinavian Christmas party later this month, we have come across a wonderful Nordic tradition based on a mischievous character that is thought to protect homes, farms, barns, and homesteads. As you read on about this mischievous character, you will likely find yourself seeing similarities to what we know in modern times as garden gnomes and even Elf on the Shelf!
Scandinavians refer to this character as tomte, nisse, nisser, or tonttu.
Tomtes of old appeared as solitary, dwarf-like, older men wearing old tattered drab colored clothes and a bright red conical cap. Their beards and hair are long and white. Many would say they look like gnomes. Though some English language-based cultures have mistakenly translated tomte into a less likable “goblin,” they are revered in Nordic culture as a welcome sight. They are often displayed during the winter solstice and throughout the winter holiday season.
These sprites prefer to work secretly and despite their diminutive size, tomte physical strength is thought to be extraordinary. Nordic tradition calls for the giving of gifts to tomte. A classic gift is a bowl of Christmas porridge with butter on Christmas Eve. Without the give of porridge, a tomte is likely to engage in mischief like tying cows’ tails together in the barn, breaking things, misplacing things, or flipping things upside down.
You won’t find tomte flying around the world on a sleigh with Rudolph and friends. Instead, he makes the rounds walking door to door with his trusty Yule goat towing the sled full of gifts. No chimney? No problem! Tomte prefers front doors.
Folklore has it that the tomte of a homestead is actually the soul of the first inhabitant of the farm. During and after the Christianization of Scandinavia, tomte was viewed by some to be a form of false god or demon and many Scandinavians stopped the tradition. The last thing a Swedish farmer wanted to face was an accusation of witchcraft because of the presence of a tomte. If a farmer’s fields were more prosperous, an inquisition might have followed to confirm whether or not an ungodly tomte might be present. Thankfully, those days have passed!
Modern-day Scandinavia has reembraced tomte. Interestingly, the commercialization of tomte now has the dwarf bearing a striking resemblance to Santa Claus of U.S. tradition. Remember the next time you meet a tomte, he doesn’t care for flying, loves porridge, prefers the company of a goat, and doesn’t know Rudolph.
Santa Claus Tomte
Body type Fat and jolly Small and slim
Transportation Sleigh with flying reindeer Sack, walking stick, Yule goat, no flying
Residence North Pole Forest in Greenland or Lapland
Entrance Chimney Front Door
Gift delivery Left under Christmas tree Given face to face
Gifts for him Cookies and milk Porridge with butter
This event will be co-hosted by our friends from the Scandinavian Alliance of Colorado.