The magic of the missing nisse
We may never know where this gnome roamed on his four-decade-long journey
Barbara K. Rostad
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
With Christmas almost here, it is a certainty that julenisser in Norway are everywhere, prancing across kitchen curtains, perching in Christmas tree branches, appearing at the table on napkins or even the dinnerware.
Rosemaler Suzanne Toftey, a Vesterheim Gold Medalist, is responsible for creating dozens of julenisser that enhance people’s homes not only in the United States where her designs are carried in an estimated 2,500 shops, but also in Norway where a factory near Trondheim has churned out an entire series of julenisse plates and other items featuring this ubiquitous symbol of a Norwegian Christmas. Many are imported to the United States.
But one special nisse harbors a heartwarming tale all his own, one that started over 45 years ago in Toftey’s native Minnesota.
In the early 1970s, before any interaction with Vesterheim, before Bergquist Imports, before a factory in Norway, Suzanne’s husband, Jack, cut out a plywood nisse, and she painted him and added “Velkommen” to the sign he held. She thought it would be an appropriate figure to have by the door to the annual rosemaling arts-and-crafts show.
For five years, this nisse was carted here and there, adding whimsey to yard parties, family celebrations, and numerous arts-and crafts shows. Sometimes he sported balloons.
One wintry Christmas season, the Toftey nisse took up residence in their front yard, wired to a tree where he stood next to a snow and ice sculpture of a bear created by Jack.
But one frosty morning when Suzanne glanced out her living-room window, the nearly 5-foot nisse in his green coat, pointy red hat and flowing white beard was nowhere to be seen.
A close inspection revealed the wires securing him to the tree had been cut. Alarmed and upset, Suzanne called the police to report her missing nisse. Somewhat confused, the officer asked her to describe the missing person.
“Five feet tall? A flowing white beard? Pointy red hat?” Now he was really confused.
The nearby dispatcher overheard his incredulous tone as he repeated the description. Catching on to what had happened, the dispatcher exclaimed, “I know! It’s a gnome. Someone has stolen her gnome.”
“What’s a gnome?” asked the officer. Not that saying “a nisse” would have helped. Contrary to popular opinion, not everyone in Minnesota is Norwegian. The dispatcher explained about gnomes.
After hearing what he really would be searching for, the officer informed Suzanne that it was unlikely she’d ever see the nisse again. “It’s probably in some college dorm room by now,” he theorized.
So that was the end of hauling around the nisse, who by now seemed almost like family. But Suzanne went on painting nisser.
Her “Takk for Maten” series, which features 14 different tiles depicting traditional Norwegian foods especially prominent at Christmas, all have a little nisse somewhere in the scene, peeking through the window or looking over someone’s shoulder. Pickled herring, krumkake, sandbakkels, fattigmann, goat cheese, and of course, lutefisk, are all included.
Meticulous in her research, Suzanne makes certain every detail is authentic. No fantasy bunads appear in her work; they can all be identified as Hallingdal Fest Bunad, for instance, or Valdres, or other specific regional wear. Ditto, of course, for the rosemaling. Hadeland, Hallingdal, Os, Rogaland, Telemark, Vest Agder—specific styles executed with precision.
“The scenes I paint reflect the love I have for my Norwegian heritage and my attempt to keep the culture alive for future generations,” she wrote in her artist statement for Vesterheim, a Norwegian heritage museum in Decorah, Iowa, where Suzanne took many rosemaling classes.
In 1988, she was awarded the Gold Medal in Rosemaling by Vesterheim, one of the most prestigious awards a rosemaler can hope to achieve.
In 1998, she and Jack started their own company, Suzanne’s Nordic Images, an attempt to keep up with the demand for her work by running a mail-order business. This two-person operation was a hectic venture.
She also supplies Bergquist Imports of Cloquet, Minn., with numerous designs that they place on tiles, mugs and other items, one of the newest being oven mitts.
Again focusing on julenisse, she created the series “Spirit of Christmas” (Julestemning) for Flaaroning A.S. in Ler, Norway, near Trondheim. These plates are manufactured exclusively in Norway and imported to the United States. Mugs and other items featuring her julenisse were also developed by this Norwegian company, including porcelain Christmas ornaments and glass figurines.
Several years ago, she and Jack were invited to this factory. It was their second trip to Norway, the first being back in 1990 for their 30th anniversary. That trip included visits with relatives in Sognefjord where Suzanne’s family originated.
Recounting their trip to Ler, Suzanne said, “I was shocked when I walked into the showroom and saw my designs everywhere.” She added that they stayed with the owners in their mountain cabin. “They treated us like royalty. I could hardly believe it.”
She and Jack also put in about a decade at Minot, N.D.’s annual Høstfest. “There were lines of people,” reported Suzanne. “It was exhausting. There was no time to eat.” She said people would bring pictures of their tiles or plates and ask, “What am I missing?” They would then select a stack to purchase, ask her to sign them, and say they’d be back later to pick them up. The Tofteys have now stopped this annual effort.
Native Minnesotans, the Tofteys met at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., where Jack was a senior when Suzanne showed up for her freshman year. After he graduated, she completed her sophomore year, then they married and raised a family, continuing to live in their home state.
A magazine article on rosemaling prompted Suzanne to try the technique on a door that needed painting. She enjoyed this first effort so much that she sought out what information she could. In the beginning she was self-taught. When an opportunity came along to take classes from some visiting Norwegian rosemalers, she jumped at the chance.
Inspired by their instruction, she began taking classes at Vesterheim. It’s 30 years now since she received the Gold Medalist Award from Vesterheim. She continues to create a steady stream of new designs.
About her long and successful career, Suzanne commented, “The best part is all the wonderful people I met along the way—besides being able to do what I love and share it.”
Late last fall, following a lunch at Arby’s in St. Cloud, Suzanne happened to look across the street at a strip mall. Flabbergasted, she pointed toward the mall. “Look!” she exclaimed. “It’s my nisse!”
Jack followed her finger, but remained skeptical. Suzanne was insistent. “I spent quite a bit of time painting him,” she later said. “I recognized him right away.”
The pair made their way across the street to Uff-DA Vinyl Records, where Jack blurted, “Where did you get that nisse?”
Jeff Pedersen, himself of Norwegian descent, was taken aback. He explained he had the gnome for about 10 years, having purchased it at a garage sale where the owner claimed to also have acquired it at another garage sale.
When he heard the story of the nisse, he offered to return it to the Tofteys. After brief consideration, the couple declined. Why not leave him where he’d be seen by many on a daily basis?
Jeff had only opened his store a few months earlier, choosing its name to honor his heritage. Today, after a flurry of publicity about the long-lost figure, the nisse still has his greeter role, though he is often indoors to escape wind and other elements.
Jeff has been in touch with the Tofteys a few times. He hopes the story of the nisse “goes down as iconic lore in this town.”
Last Christmas, the Toftey “kids,” whose own children are used as Suzanne’s models for her work, gave her a new nisse, a bobblehead they found in the Twin Cities. He’s about three feet tall, a bit smaller than his predecessor. He spent quite a bit of time on display this past summer.
“But,” confided Suzanne, “I repainted him.”
And what is this artist extraordinaire up to these days? Oh, she still sends designs to Bergquist and fulfills design requests from the factory in Ler, but “right now I’m rosemaling my own kitchen cupboards. I’m almost done except for scrollwork on the drawers.”
This Christmas, the bobblehead nisse will greet visitors to the Toftey home in Sartell, while the nearly 50-year-old nisse this couple created will bid “Velkommen” to all who enter at St. Cloud’s Uff-Da Vinyl Records.
Tracing the Toftey nisse from that long-ago winter morning when he was snatched out of his front yard to his current role as greeter at a record shop named Uff-Da, where his original owners spotted him after a 40-year absence, raises more questions than can ever be answered.
Only the twinkle in his eye reveals that this once-missing nisse—this inheritor of myth and magic that dates back to the 1500s—has stories he will never tell.
Barbara Rostad, a North Dakota Norwegian, has been writing for The Norwegian American since 2014. A versatile writer with degrees in journalism and sociology plus teaching experience in sociology, English, and speech, Barbara has published articles and poems, edited newsletters, compiled a book about Ski for Light, and received writing awards from Idaho Writer’s League. A 45-year member of Sons of Norway, she’s often both newsletter editor and cultural director.
This article originally appeared in the December 14, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.