da:Nisse fr:Julenisse pl:Nisse sv:Tomte

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A tomtenisse made of wood. A common Scandinavian Christmas decoration.

A tomte (derived from from the Swedish word for house lot or (in modern usage) garden, tomt) or nisse (a nickname for Nils, used much in the same way as "some Bob") is a mythical creature of Scandinavian folklore, specifically part of a group of creatures called vetter, common in rural areas. His cloest English counterpart is probably the brownie. There were two varieties of nisse or tomte, one type that resided in the house (cf. the Russian domovoi) and one that resided in the barn. He would take care of the homestead, crops, house, and people while the human inhabitants slept, unlike the mischievous alver (the typical elves of English folklore).

The tomte was imagined as a man in height of four feet or less with a knitted cap, a long beard and grey clothes. He is similar in aspect to a leprechaun, brownie, a gnome or a dwarf. Like the brownie, the tomte or nisse needed gifts, but this gift was a bowl of porridge or rice pudding on Christmas night. If he wasn't given his payment, he would leave the farm or house which couldn't survive without his nightly chores, or engage in mischief, such as tying the cows' tails together in the barn, turning objects upside-down, and breaking things (cf. poltergeist).

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 went straight on and killed all the cattle resting in the barn. But, as he thus became hungry, he went back to his porridge and began eating it, and so found the butter at the bottom of the bowl. Full of grief, he then hurried to a far away land with magic cattle, milking much better than the ones he had put to death, and replaced the latter with the former. And so they lived happily ever after.

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.

The close association between the tomte, kindness (his usual attitude) and Christmas made it natural for Haddon Sundblom to use him in his design of the modern Scandinavian-American version of Santa Claus, as marketed by the Coca-Cola Company: a full sized man with all red clothes and white beard. In Scandinavia, Jultomten (Santa) is helped by toy-making tomtar rather than elves, as well.

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