Tomte & Nisse: 16 Facts You Can’t Miss About Scandinavian Gnomes

Scandinavia is a region in Northern Europe that includes countries like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland. This region has a rich and fascinating history, and its folklore is no exception. The Nisse, which is also called Tomte, is a legendary being that originates from the tales of Scandinavian folklore. It is usually linked with the winter solstice and the festive period of Christmas.

1Nisse And Tomte May Be Different But Comparable Figures In Scandinavian Folklore

A nisse and a tomte, known respectively in Norwegian and Swedish, are comparable figures in folklore. They are both reclusive, playful household spirits that are entrusted with safeguarding and taking care of the farmstead and its constructions. The word tomte comes from “tomt”, which means homestead or plot of land, and literally translates to “homestead man”. Meanwhile, nisse is a derivative of the name Nils, which is the Scandinavian version of Nicholas.

2With Their Diminutive Height, Tomte & Nisse Look Like Garden Gnomes

Typically, they are depicted as small creatures with a lengthy white beard and sporting a pointed or knitted cap in shades of red, grey or other vivid hues. They bear a resemblance to garden gnomes in terms of their physical appearance.

The nisse is a well-known being from Scandinavian folklore and has featured in numerous works of Scandinavian literature. During the 19th century, as folklore was being romanticized and documented, the nisse became increasingly popular.

3There Are Different English translations Of Nisse & Tomte

In Pat Shaw Iversen’s English translation (1960), the term nisse, which is originally Norwegian, is retained but with an added note in parentheses indicating that it refers to a household spirit. On the other hand, H. L. Braekstad (1881) chose to substitute nisse with the word “brownie.” In Brynildsen’s dictionary (1927), nisse is defined as either ‘goblin’ or ‘hobgoblin’.

In the English versions of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, the Danish word nisse is translated as ‘goblin.’ For instance, in the story “The Goblin at the Grocer’s.”

4Tomte And Nisse Word Origination

The origin of the term nisse is believed to have come from the Old Norse word niðsi, which means “dear little relative.” Another theory is that it is a distorted form of the name Nils, which is the Scandinavian equivalent of Nicholas. Some have suggested a possible link between nisse and the “nixie,” but this is a water-sprite, and the proper equivalent is nøkk, not nisse.

The tomte, gardvord, and tunkall are other names given to these creatures, all of which are related to the farmstead. The Finnish tonttu, on the other hand, is derived from the term for a place of residence and area of influence, which is the house lot, tontti in Finnish.

5These Creatures Serve As A Protector Role For Farmstead & Live Secretly In A House

As per the traditional belief, these creatures reside secretly in a household and serve as its protector. When treated kindly, they offer protection to children and animals from harm and misfortune, and they also lend a hand with household tasks and farm work. Despite their diminutive size, the tomte/nisse are known for their incredible strength.

6Tomte Love To Braid Horses Hairs & One Should Avoid Untangling These Hairs If It’s Done By Them

The tomte is associated with farm animals in general, but they have a particular fondness for horses. It was believed that one could identify the tomte’s preferred horse because it would be exceptionally healthy and well-cared-for. The tomte would even braid the horse’s hair and tail at times. Untangling these braids could sometimes result in misfortune or provoke the tomte’s anger.

The nisse is closely associated with farm animals, particularly horses which are their most valued animal. It is believed that the tomte’s favorite horse will be exceptionally healthy and well-cared for, and the tomte may even braid its hair and tail. Removing these braids without permission can result in misfortune or angering the tomte.

7Tomte WIll Never Leave Your Farms & Houses If You Serve Them Gifts And Porridge On Christmas

In the household, it was considered prudent to alert the tomte below if anyone spilled something on the floor. It was also customary to appease the spirit with gifts, such as offering a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve (a tradition known as Blót). Failure to provide these offerings would prompt the tomte to leave the house or farm, or cause him to play pranks such as tying the cows’ tails together in the barn, turning objects upside-down, or even breaking things, akin to a troll.

The nisse prefers their porridge with a pat of butter on top. In a popular story, a farmer placed the butter underneath the porridge, causing the nisse to become enraged and kill a cow. After discovering the butter at the bottom of the bowl, the nisse replaced the cow out of remorse. In another tale, a Norwegian maid ate the porridge intended for the nisse and was severely beaten, with the nisse stating that she must dance with him as punishment. The next morning, the farmer found her nearly lifeless.

8Bite Of A Nisse Is Severe To A Point That May Lead To Even Death

Few tales describe how the nisse could cause madness or even bite people. The bite of a nisse is poisonous, and supernatural healing is typically required. Legend has it that a girl who was bitten by a nisse wasted away and died before help could arrive.

Selma Lagerlöf’s children’s book, “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils,” features an irate tomte who transforms the mischievous boy Nils into a pixie at the beginning of the story. Nils then embarks on a journey across Sweden while riding on the back of a goose.

9They May Have Long White Beard & Farmer Like Clothes & Can Be Easily Recognized With Their Short Stature

The tomte/nisse was commonly depicted as an elderly man of small stature, ranging from a few inches to about half the height of an adult man. He typically had a full beard and was attired in typical farmer’s clothing. Their height rarely exceeded three feet, and they were easily recognizable due to their long white beards and bright, colorful clothing.

In modern-day Denmark, nisses are often portrayed without beards, dressed in gray and red woolens with a red cap. 

10From Shapeshifting To Invisibility, They Possess Various Superpowers

As nisses are believed to possess exceptional illusionary abilities and the power to become invisible, glimpses of them are usually fleeting, regardless of their appearance. According to Norwegian folklore, the tomte/nisse has four fingers, pointed ears, and eyes that glow in the dark.

Although, according to the folktales that depict the tomte/nisse as a shapeshifter, capable of assuming a form larger than an adult man. In other stories, the tomte/nisse is described as having a single, cyclopean eye.

11You Must Learn Temperament & Disciplines Before Adopting A Tomte/Nisse Otherwise One May Face Serious Consequence If Failed Treating With Them Properly

Despite their protective and caring nature, tomte/nisse can be easily offended, and if insulted or treated poorly, they can become temperamental and vengeful. They may retaliate with small pranks like hitting or pinching, or with more severe actions such as killing off livestock or causing financial ruin to the farm. The tomte/nisse strongly dislikes change and prefers traditional ways of doing things at the farm. Additionally, they have a low tolerance for rudeness, and anyone who swears, urinates in the barn, or mistreats animals may face physical punishment from the tomte/nisse.

12These Small Creatures’ Height Ranges Between 2 to 3 Ft

The height of the tomte varies between different sources. One Swedish-American source claims that their height ranges from 60 cm (2 ft) to a maximum of 90 cm (3 ft). Meanwhile, according to a local Swedish tradition, the tomte (plural: tomtarna) were only 1 aln tall, which is just under 60 cm or 2 ft.

13Christianization Of Scandinavia Changes The Perception Of Many Farmers For These Creatures

In the past, the nisse or tomte was believed to be the spirit of the first person to inhabit the farm, who lived in burial mounds on the property. However, after the Christianization of Scandinavia, the nisse became associated with heathen beliefs and was often demonized or connected to the Devil. Worshipping the tomte was considered a form of false idol worship, and having a tomte on one’s farm was thought to put the fate of one’s soul at risk. Some believed that various non-Christian rituals were necessary to attract a tomte to one’s farm.

Despite this negative perception, the belief that the nisse brought riches to the farm through unseen work persisted. This belief sometimes led to conflicts between farmers, with accusations being made that one farmer’s success was due to the presence of a nisse stealing from his neighbors. These rumors were damaging and akin to accusations of witchcraft during the Inquisitions.

14From Brownie To Pixie, Scandinavian Folklore Have Many Nisse Like Creatures

The nisse is similar to other Scandinavian beings, such as the Danish vætter and Norwegian tusser, which are social creatures, whereas the nisse is solitary. Other synonyms for nisse include gårdbo, gardvord, god bonde, and gårdsrå in Scandinavian languages. The nisse can also reside on a ship and be called a skibsnisse or skeppstomte. In Finland, the saunatonttu resides in the sauna. The Nis Puk is similar to the nisse and is found in the Danish-German border area.

Other European folklore features similar beings, such as the Scottish and English brownie, West Country pixie, Northumbrian English hob, German Heinzelmännchen, Slavic domovoi and Dutch kabouter. Folklore expressions like Nisse god dräng suggest a connection to Robin Goodfellow.

15Under The Christian Influence, Nisse Or Tomte Are Depicted With Yule Got Or A Pig On Christmas Eve

The nisse/tomte tradition is connected to Christmas and known as Jultomten in Swedish, Julemanden or julenissen in Danish, Julenissen in Norwegian and Joulutonttu in Finnish. During Christmas Eve, the nisse/tomte is accompanied by the Yule goat or Julbocken and they knock on people’s doors to give out presents. Similarly to Santa Claus, the nisse/tomte enters homes to deliver presents. The nisse/tomte is often seen with a pig, which is also a popular Christmas symbol in Scandinavia and related to their role as guardians of the farm. It is customary to leave a bowl of porridge with butter for the nisse/tomte as a sign of gratitude for their services.

During the 1840s, the nisse who lived on farms in Denmark was given the role of delivering Christmas presents and was renamed julenisse (Yule Nisse). In 1881, a poem called “Tomten” by Viktor Rydberg was published in the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning, featuring a solitary tomte who contemplates the mysteries of life and death on a cold Christmas night. This poem included the first painting by Jenny Nyström depicting the traditional Swedish mythical character, which transformed him into the friendly, white-bearded, red-capped figure associated with Christmas ever since. Soon after, a variant of the nisse/tomte called the jultomte in Sweden and julenisse in Norway emerged and started delivering Christmas presents in Sweden and Norway, influenced by the emerging Father Christmas traditions as well as the new Danish tradition, replacing the traditional Yule Goat (julbock).

Over time, the jultomte, julenisse, julemand, and joulupukki have become more commercialized, resembling the American Santa Claus. However, these figures still retain unique features and traditions that reflect their respective local cultures. They do not live at the North Pole, but rather in nearby forests or specific regions, such as Greenland for the Danish julemand and Lapland for the Finnish joulupukki. Instead of coming down the chimney, they enter through the front door to deliver presents directly to children, much like the Yule Goat did. They are not depicted as overweight, and while some may ride in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, they do not fly. In Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, it is customary to leave a bowl of porridge for the jultomte/julenisse/julemand. Depictions of these figures on Christmas cards and decorations often show them as the friendly, red-capped beings with horses, cats, or goats, as envisioned by Jenny Nyström. The idea of the farm tomte still lives on in literature and imagination for many people.

The meaning of the Swedish word “tomte” has become somewhat unclear, but generally, when someone mentions “jultomten” or “tomten” (with the definite article), they are referring to the modern version of the tomte. If someone mentions “tomtar” (plural) or “tomtarna” (plural with definite article), they could also be referring to the more traditional tomtar. The traditional meaning of “tomte” still exists in an idiom, which refers to a human caretaker of a property (hustomten) and also someone who does a favor mysteriously, like hanging up laundry. People might also hope for a little hustomte to tidy up for them. In one of Jan Brett’s children’s stories, Hedgie’s Surprise, a tomte plays a leading role. When the idea of tomten having helpers (sometimes in a workshop) was introduced, the term “tomtenisse” came into use and could correspond to the Christmas elf. In translations, tomtenisse may replace the term “Christmas elf,” or the term may simply be used for elf-like depictions.

16Despite Not Being Famous Like Santa, Tomte/Nisse Have Claimed Their Fame On Pop Culture Too

In modern fiction, nisser/tomte frequently make an appearance in Christmas-themed TV series and other forms of contemporary literature. Depending on the version, they can be depicted as either very tiny or human-sized. Typically, they remain hidden from humans and possess magical powers.

Tontu, a nisse character, is a recurring figure in the animated series Hilda from 2018 and the graphic novel series it is based on. In this portrayal, Tontu is a small, furry humanoid who lives invisibly in the main character’s residence.