If you don’t have a nisse on your farm, become one

A reminder of the miracle of life at Christmastime


Photo: freepik
The hummingbird looked up at me when we got outside, as if to say “tusen takk og God Jul!” Then off he flew, free as a … fugl

Mukilteo, Wash.

This Christmastime at the winter solstice, when the days are short and the trees and wildlife seem dead and gone—perhaps under a blanket of snow—we celebrate the longest night of the year in anticipation of longer days and the renewal of life in the spring. For me, a renewal can only happen if you trust in nature’s rhythms, in that sense of wonder, and trust that the Earth always keeps spinning in its orbit to pass through winter into spring.

From where do you draw your sense of wonder in these difficult times?

I remember a singular moment of wonder among many that I save and catalog as I’ve traveled through life. These are moments when nature, God, fate, or the infinite bless me, grant me grace, reveal something amazing to me that only I get to experience.

There was a time I remember my cousin’s old double-car unfinished garage when I pretended I was in a barn. That’s because, being unfinished inside, the garage had a loft or attic, where boards placed across the rafters enabled you to stand up under the peak of the roof. I used to sleep on a cot up there, in my “secret” loft, accessible by climbing a ladder of 2-by-4s nailed to the studs of a wall. I loved climbing up to emerge, my head above the open rafters, clambering onto the boards in the loft.

The loft even had a window looking down into the forest, the only source of light up there. I used to peer out from the window and pretend I was in the loft of our barn, among the hay bales, or perhaps the upper floor of a stabbur. Maybe I was the nisse tending to the welfare of the animals. My cousin didn’t have any livestock, but he did have lots of visiting birds, including hummingbirds.

One day in late fall, close to the winter solstice, I was in the garage and heard something moving up in the loft. It sounded like a trapped bee hitting the window—a really big bee. I climbed the ladder to investigate, only to discover a hummingbird was up there. He had somehow flown into the open garage door up through the rafters and didn’t know that he needed to fly down to get out again.

The bird was trying to get out the window and was hitting its beak against it, trying to break through. He also appeared tired, landing occasionally to gather his strength to attack the window again. Obviously, this was not going to end well.

It was clear to me that something had to be done, but the window in the loft wasn’t openable. This hummingbird desperately needed a nisse, and I had to play that part. I slowly climbed up into the loft, trying not to frighten the bird. I even tried calming it down in “that language only animals understand,” as the nisse in Astrid Lindgren’s tomte books does.

I watched in sadness, helpless as the hummingbird got more and more tired. Then it perched on one of the rafters near the ladder, exhausted.

Just seeing a hummingbird this close was amazing to me, but what followed was even more so. I walked slowly over to the ladder and very carefully went down a few rungs. The bird was within reach, but trying to grab it would never work, and besides, a nisse wouldn’t have done something so crude.

Instead, I talked quietly to it and slowly put my hand alongside the rafter. I willed the bird to step off into my hand, and to my surprise, it did. We forged a strange trust between us that I was there to help him.

Ever so slowly, I drew my hand in and descended the ladder single-handedly. The bird stayed right there in my hand. I could see it, but I couldn’t even feel its weight, it was so light. I got all the way down and out the back door facing the woods and stopped. He seemed to look up at me, and with a flurry of wings, he buzzed off into the woods.

I frequently ask myself if I just made up this whole event, that I was granted a chance to rescue this little helpless living thing? Surely that is one of the greatest gifts one could receive. I remember this as a moment of grace and wonder, a demonstration of the miracle of life, a communion of spirits.

This is what I need to carry me through this dark time, to trust that the spring will come and that there’s hope for us all. I hope you can find something in your life to carry you through this time, too.

Be the nisse on your farm, and reach out in a spirit of giving, caring, and love at Christmastime.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Eric Stavney

Eric Stavney is a graduate of the University of Washington Department of Scandinavian Studies and hosts the interviews and music podcast “Nordic on Tap” at NordicOnTap.podbean.com.