A Child’s Christmas Prize


Child's Christmas

Photo: Lars Wanberg
Julenisser are Norwegian Christmas elves.

By Larrie Wanberg

At Christmas when I was four years old, my parents told me a story from Norway about a family of elves—we called them nisser—who would play tricks on people, sometimes hiding things that were mysteriously missing.

The nisser, I was told, were living under the red granary on our Dakota farm. We lived many miles from town. We had no close neighbors. Farmers during that time—when our country was very poor—left the homesteads of their fathers who had come from Norway in search of free land.

Old-country tradition was part of our family life. As a Norwegian tradition at Christmas, children would leave a small bowl of porridge by the front door as a gift for the nisser. Lo and behold, the little elves would party around the dish at night and eat all the porridge before dawn.

On Christmas Eve, after hearing the elf story, I left a small bowl of porridge at the door for the nisser. In turn, they left me a small marzipan candy, molded like a little pig with a tiny red ribbon around its neck. It was such a nice gift. I nibbled on it for days, relishing what a prize it was.

Child's Christmas

Photo: Lars Wanberg
Nisser can play tricks on people, sometimes hiding things that were mysteriously missing…

I enjoyed this story so much that I decided to make friends with the nisse family on our farm. I’d feed them rice kernels every day through the winter and spring. By summer, they trusted me and we played hide-and-go-seek in the high grass by the granary. They would jump for joy when discovered by their red stocking caps showing above the grass or through a tiny bush. But when the leaves fell from the trees and the grass was brown, the windbreak became as barren as the prairie and the fields.

As the weather turned cold that winter, I sneaked the family of nisser into the house and hid them in a shoebox under my bed. I punched some holes in it for air, made a door on one side, and added some drawings on it with crayons.

Early in the morning of Christmas Eve, my parents told me that we would be joining the uncles and two cousins in town for church that day, followed by a traditional Norwegian dinner and the sharing of gifts. I gathered up the nisse family and took the shoebox with me.

At dinner, a festive table awaited our family group with meatballs, some strange fish, lefse with cinnamon and sugar, mashed potatoes, and vegetables—a feast that I’ll always remember.
My cousins and I were reminded of the tradition of a single almond being mixed in the porridge. A lucky finder would win the marzipan pig on the table.

Child's Christmas

Photo: Lars Wanberg
Nisser in their natural habitat.

However, this year the table prize of the marzipan pig would go to whoever made the most creative gift to give to someone else.

When it was time for me to describe my gift, I began to speak excitedly about Christmas.

“I’ve a secret to share,” I said hesitantly. “Never told anyone, not even my parents.”

I left the room for a moment to bring the shoebox to the table.

“This box,” I said slowly, “is a home. I’ve cared for a family of nisser in this box.”

People at the table began smiling.

“I’ve kept it a secret because …” I stopped when a few at the table began to chuckle. I heard a muffled word like “dreamer.”

I took a breath and continued with renewed energy.

“The nisser are my friends.” My cousins giggled out loud with shades of embarrassment.

My mother nodded her head toward me with encouragement.

Holding my chin up, I took the cover off of the empty box and lifted up the shoebox to eye level to show the open area to the table.

The crayon accents that were apparent on the outer sides of the box were also decorating the inside.

On the bottom of the shoebox were stick-figure drawings of nisser with tasseled caps and pointed shoes. Some were young and some were old with beards—a family.

“My nisse friends are cared for in this shoebox. It’s a family home for them,” I said with determination. “There’s room for all of you in my house!”
Then it was quiet.

My uncle at the head of the table stood up from his chair, picked up the marzipan pig with the red ribbon, and handed it to me.

“You get the Christmas prize,” he said, “for your gift of caring.”

And there were hugs all around and some cream cake, too.

Features Editor Larrie Wanberg writes an original children’s story every Christmas for the holiday edition. The roots of this story date back to 1976 when, as founder of the Academy of Child Ecology for expatriate families in Stavanger, Norway, he wrote, “A child’s creative imagination is nature’s highest form of energy—a universal energy … both costless and priceless … capable of changing the world.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.