A nisse for everyone who loves Christmas
Dahlsnissen creates “little, original, amazing creatures”
Making nisser has been Dahlsnissen designer extraordinaire Hilde Dahl’s great passion and hobby. Previously, she was a hairdresser, but she had made nisser for 30 years on the side and tried out different ways of doing it. She took classes on how to make dolls, and an American taught her how to make porcelain dolls. But it didn’t appeal to her. The entire class used the same form. She wanted to make the dolls individually in clay by hand. She then started making her own one-of-a-kind nisser. The faces are molded by Hilde, with hand-painted and hand-knitted clothes that look very realistic.
Since she was a child, Hilde has drawn and painted. Her mother taught her to sew and knit, and her grandmother taught her how to crochet. She took classes with renowned doll sculptor Sissel B. Skille in the early 1980s.
“Faces have always fascinated me, and it was in the early 1980s I started sculpting with different materials,” she says on the Dahlsnissen website. “I was lucky to attend many courses with Sissel B. Skille. I absolutely loved creating these little, original, amazing creatures. One-of-a-kind nisser.”
Hilde used Facebook to follow her nisser to their new homes. Sales took off after the Norwegian newspaper VG wrote about them. Waiting lists exploded. People from Denmark, Sweden, and the United States were contacting her.
To take care of her faithful customers, she started the company Dahlsnissen AS in January 2017 with her sister, Gunn Dahl. They wanted the nisser to be more readily available to people. “We wanted our Norwegian nisser to be available for everyone who loves Christmas,” she said.
Another motivation was that many barns on Norwegian farms are being torn down, and Hilde and Gunn wanted to make sure the nisser didn’t become homeless. According to tradition, the nisser live in barns of the farmstead and secretly act as their guardians. If treated well, they protect the family and animals from evil and misfortunes. They are known to be short-tempered, especially when offended. When insulted they will play tricks. The farmers would traditionally give nisser a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve.
In addition to her sister, her mother and some friends help Hilde with the production. The company makes designer dolls out of one of Hilde’s one-of-a-kind nisser every year by creating a mold. The dolls are still handmade one by one and hand-painted in a limited edition. In the workshop there is a Christmas atmosphere all year around.
“We try to make one new model every year,” said Hilde. “Due to the coronavirus, no new model was made this year. I design all the clothes, faces, and bodies. I also design the wooden boxes the nisser come in.”
At the local Market Day last year, they met a man from Seattle who offered to help them with the right contacts “over there.”
“We really want a few retailers in the United States,” she said. “The dream is to show the unique Dahlsnissen to the whole world.”
The first nisse children introduced in 2017 were Krister and Andrea, named after Hilde’s two children. A year later, Gunn’s daughter, Alida, came along—in the flesh and as a nisse. Oscar is the godson of the three, the son of Hilde’s cousin. The girls are outfitted in bunads.
The goal is ultimately to make an exclusive, collectible series with figures of other members of the Dahl family. The nisser are packaged in attractive nostalgic wooden boxes. Each comes with some information about the designer and a photo of the Dahl family member the nisse is named after. They can be seen sitting or standing, and they last for generations. The Dahlsnissen Facebook page has over 31,500 followers.
Hilde grew up in Åkrehamn, a small town of about 7,000 inhabitants located on the west side of Karmøy close to Haugesund. It has long traditions as a fishing harbor and is purported to have the most beautiful beach in Norway.
“The magic of Christmas has captivated me ever since I was a little girl, the cozy time of Advent from my childhood with memories I will be taking with me for the rest of my life. Tradition is very important to our family, and when the smell of traditional Norwegian pinnekjøtt is spreading throughout the house, it is finally Christmas Eve. Childhood memories such as the knocking on the door, while we were sitting trembling with joy and excitement, will never be forgotten. The guests were many, and we were almost sitting on top of each other. They always had fun knocking just before Santa came, and we jumped with thrill every time. Little did I know, that this was the guy I would be taking with me through the span of life.”
Her advice to others who want to start their own business is to get some experience. For herself, experience took 30 years. Hilde doesn’t expect to get tired of it. “Do I get tired of it?” she said. “Not at all. It is amazing. Imagine being in the glowing spirit of Christmas, all year round!”
The traditional, Norwegian Dahlsnissen is being welcomed into homes both in Norway and abroad. Just keep some porridge warm.
To see more of these magical little creatures, visit the Dahlsnissen online store:
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 27, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.