Nisse in Norway

From farm sprite to bringer of Christmas presents


Photo: Bodil Østmo-Sæter
A modern nisse couple as imagined by Norwegian artist Bodil Østmo-Sæter.

Lopez Island, Wash.

The farm sprite, later known as nisse, has a long history in Norse tradition. The oldest witness is found in the 12th-century Saga of Olaf Trygvason. In 981 A.D., an old Icelander reminds his Christian son, wanting to convert him, that he worships his ármaðr (“hearth man”), who gives him daily advice and help, takes care of his cattle, and foretells the future.

Animistic beliefs in nature spirits were common in the Scandinavian North and, for that matter, in all pre-urban societies throughout the world. In Norway until World War I, most of the population made a living from farming and fishing in isolated settlements. Belief in nature spirits inhabiting the house and farm environment was commonplace, based on a deeply felt interdependence of the human and the natural world.

Farm productivity and the health and well-being of animals and family depended on the goodwill of the usynlige (“invisible folk”). Folklorist Svale Solheim showed that the various names of the household spirit—tomte (“homestead man”), gardvord (“farm guardian”), tunkall (“yard fellow”), tusse (“farm sprite”)—stressed the identification of this being with the settled homestead. He surmised that the farm sprite represented the ancestor who had carved the farm out of the primeval forest and was buried under the tun-tree in the farmyard or under the hearth in the house. To enlist his help, the household propitiated the domestic spirit by offering gifts and by observing strict behavioral rules.

In Norwegian belief and custom, the farm sprite is mostly portrayed as a solitary, older man living in his own bed in the house or in a nearby rock. He is often thought to do his work at night when the household is asleep, and he is rarely seen. One of the strict rules was that people had to keep quiet at night and not disturb the sprite baking bread in the kitchen or caring for the animals in the barn. The success of the farmer’s relations to the farm sprite always depended on mutual respect and trust.

On occasion, it is the farm sprite who proves querulous and even vengeful if he does not feel appreciated. The following story, collected in Telemark in the 1930s, shows how the farmer derides the work of the farm sprite and consequently loses his support:

One night, Lavrans was down in Meås Valley, when he saw a tusse stumbling uphill to the barn with a single blade of grain on his back. He was moaning and panting, as if he were carrying a terribly heavy burden.

“What are you huffing and puffing about?” shouted Lavrans. “Your load isn’t all that heavy!”

“If I’m going to carry as much from you as I have carried to you, you’ll realize that the burden is heavy enough!” answered the tusse. And then he turned around and carried his load over to the neighboring farm, which was called Bakken. But when Lavrans looked at him from behind, he suddenly saw that the tusse was hauling a huge load of grain.


Image: Public domain
St. Nicholas with his helpers as depicted in 1881.

Before then the tusse had carried both hay and food stuffs from Bakken so that there was nothing but poverty and hardship there. But after he returned everything from Meås there was great wealth on Bakken. After that they had little luck on Meås. Lavrans died a violent death, and his family vanished.

The collective name nisse entered the Norwegian farm sprite tradition from Denmark, probably as a noa-name— a flattering synonym or nickname used to avoid calling on the household spirit inadvertently. The name nisse, which has been translated as “dear little relative,” apparently was derived from Niels, a Danish form of Latin Nicolaus (Greek Nicolaos), the name of the saint who in medieval times was widely venerated as protector of children and seafarers. Nis or Nisse are pet names for Niels or Nikolas (as Lasse is a pet name for Lars).

A custom that has survived into modern tradition is that the nisse at Christmas is rewarded for his service with a bowl of rømmegrøt (cream porridge) with a big pat of butter on top—the quintessential Norwegian holiday food.

The church disavowed belief in nature sprites as heretical and in Carta Marina (1539), the first map of the Nordic countries, by ecclesiastic Olaus Magnus, the farm sprite is depicted as a sexualized demon.

However, during the Romantic national revival in response to Denmark’s loss of Norway in 1814, the farm sprite was rehabilitated, not only as protector of the farm but also moved closer to the Christian celebration of jul, the ancient Norse solstice feast. At the time when the Christmas tree and the giving of Christmas presents were introduced from the Continent, the nisse morphed into the julenisse as the bringer of gifts corresponding to the German Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) identified with Saint Nicholas, the bishop of Lycia in today’s Turkey. Nicholas, who died in the year 333, was sainted 600 years later as the protector of children and bringer of gifts at the occasion of Christ’s birth, often accompanied by dwarves reminiscent of the nisse.

After the Reformation, Lutheran Germany often replaced the Catholic saint with Knecht Ruprecht (“Servant Ruprecht”), sometimes seen as the helper of the Christ Child, and sometimes as the helper of St. Nicholas, who lived on in popular tradition.

The second major step in forming the Norwegian julenisse occurred via America when St. Nicholas was brought as Sinter-klaas to the former Dutch colonies in New Amsterdam (later New York). In the 20th century, Sinterklaas became the secular Santa Claus.

In 1931, Coca-Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa for Christmas advertisements, which established the saint as a warm, happy fat man with rosy cheeks, a white beard, twinkling eyes, and laugh lines. His helpers now were imagined as mass-producing Christmas presents somewhere near the North Pole, from where Santa would transport them in his airborne, reindeer-powered sleigh to the homes of happy children, which he entered through the chimney on the night of Dec. 24.

The image of the bringer of plenty proved irresistible to the global world, including Norway. The Norwegian julenisse, however, retained the appearance of the traditional farm sprite even though the animistic belief in the numinous household spirit had long since been replaced in the modern worldview. Nor does the Norwegian julenisse retreat to the North Pole but rather lives somewhere in the natural world nearby and brings his presents through the front door.

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

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Henning Sehmsdorf

Henning Sehmsdorf, formerly a professor at the University of Washington, lives on Lopez Island, Wash., where he has farmed since 1970. He has published articles and books on Scandinavian folklore, including Scandinavian Folk Belief & Legend, 1988; Nordic Folklore: Recent Studies, 1989; All the World’s Reward, 1999; Continuity of Norwegian Tradition in the Pacific Northwest, 2020; and Myth & Tradition in Norwegian Literature & Folklife, 2020.