A cherished tradition carries a message for today 

Is the Julenisse real?

santa claus julenisse

Photo: Ilan Kelman
These days, the Julenisse—or Santa Claus—is coming to town riding on a modern reindeer.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Julenisse: the Norwegian name for the icon variously known in English as Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, or just plain old Santa Claus.

The common representation is an elderly man. Fat, jolly, bushy eyebrows, often bespectacled, with a fluffy white beard, white skin, crinkling laugh lines, and sparkling eyes. He rewards kindness in the 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street, while in the 2004 animation The Polar Express, he supports a journey of self-discovery in believing the impossible. With these talents, children inevitably love him.

Santa as an anagram of Satan can also ooze evilness. He stalks and murders in a slew of horror movies and robs a bank in The Silent Partner (1978). Samuel J. Byck protested in a Santa Claus suit before trying to hijack a plane to crash it into the White House to assassinate President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. It could be a useful Halloween costume and year-round disguise, except that it looks out of place away from Dec. 25.

So who or what is the Julenisse? In Norwegian, Jul is the time period around Christmas, often taken to be simply Christmas. Nissen is the elf, the gnome, the goblin, the pixie, the sprite, or similar. (Nissen is not to be confused with the English terms Nissen hut, a prefabricated military-type shelter, or Nissen Fundoplication, a medical operation to tackle acid reflux.)

The nisse in Norway treks back through history’s mists. The pixie was a guardian spirit on the farm, assisting with chores, although never to be trifled with. If the nisse was not fed on Christmas Eve by leaving outside a bowl of oatmeal topped by a dollop of butter, then s/he might create mischief around the farm.

The nisse evolved as Norway moved toward “The Great Transformation,” the period from the mid-to-late 19th century during which major emigration and land use change in agriculture marked the country. Soon, a farm’s nisse became associated with offering Christmas gifts, morphing into the Julenisse. The nisse tended to live nearby, rather than at the North Pole.

Reindeer accompaniment seems to be a more recent addition. The more typical Norwegian use of reindeer at Christmas might instead be steak or stew. At least this avoids some of Santa Claus’ more awkward aspects, notably the reindeer bullying Rudolph due to his red nose, then accepting him only when his difference proved to be useful for them.

Back to Norway, ubiquitous commercialism brings Julenissen to the country’s Christmas markets. Ornaments, magnets, puppets, stuffed toys, pictures, and figurines are all available for kroner.

They mingle with the true spirit of Jul and the Julenisse: spending time with family and friends, helping out each other, partaking in sugary food and gløgg (with or without alcohol), enjoying Christmas trees and lights, basking in bonfire warmth, and having fun through skating, skiing, Ferris wheels, and carousels. With just a wee bit of mischief thrown in: jumping on haystacks, throwing snowballs, and trickstering via troubadour street theater.

The Julenisse’s ho-ho-ho is omnipresent, as dressed-up humans and as statues. Smiling photos with kids, cheerful words to adults, sound advice for hanging stockings, and, yes, friendly costumed reindeer for petting and feeding.

All leading to finally uncover the answer to “Is the Julenisse real?” It harkens back to before Norway was fully independent, emerging from The Great Transformation as a modern country for the time. It appears in an editorial printed in New York’s The Sun newspaper on Sept. 21, 1897.

In response to an 8-year-old’s letter asking “Is there a Santa Claus?” Francis Pharcellus Church anonymously penned, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.”

To paraphrase another sentence from the editorial, “Alas! How dreary would be the farm if there were no nisse.”

We have progressed significantly in amazing ways since 1897. We nevertheless retain a world mired in hate, violence, poverty, oppression, and horror. We need the nisse to help us get through our daily chores, to prod us when we do not offer something in return, and to exemplify the seasonal spirit—of Christmas and other celebrations.

The Julenisse is real as long as we wish to create and give a better world for all.

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at www.ilankelman.org and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.