The Christmas gift bringers of Norway and
Denmark are household elves, or gnomes, called the Julenisser. In Sweden
they are called the Jultomtes. The name ‘Nisse’ may have come from ‘Nicls’
or ‘Niclsen’, a Scandinavian rendering of the German name ‘Nicolaus’
The Julenisse has been part of Danish
folklore and legend for many centuries. The belief in these small people
stems from pagan times when spirits were said to come out during the
winter solstice. The ghostly procession was headed by the winter god Odin
and accompanied by the small ancestors of the Nisser. Nowadays, however,
the Nisser are associated entirely with Christmas.
Only a foot high, the Julenisse has the
face of an old man, with white hair and a long white beard. With his
pointed red cap, he can be easily spotted in the snow.
During the year Julenisser live in attics
and stables, attaching themselves to a particular family and caring for
their stable and cattle. They are particularly kind to household pets,
which is why the Julenisse is often pictured with a cat on Danish
Christmas cards. They are also good to children, although they are careful
never to be seen.
The Julenisser like to be helpful around
the farm and take special care of the hearth, where they sometimes like to
sleep. As long as the family is good to them, they will continue to help;
but if they are in any way mistreated, they can sometimes play spiteful
and mischievous pranks.
On Christmas Eve a bowl of porridge is
ceremoniously set out for the Julenisser. After everyone has gone to bed
they emerge with a large sack to hide present. all around the house. One
of the presents is certain to be a Julklapp. This is a large package
which, when opened, is found to contain another package inside. This
second, smaller package is addressed to a different member of the family.
The next person opens it, only to find that it is really meant for yet
another member of the family. The package gets smaller and smaller, until
the true recipient is left with a very small package. The Julklapp gift is
always a surprise.