Nisse, tomte, and other small supernatural beings

Not just simple garden gnomes, these creatures come alive at Christmastime

Christmas is coming, and nisse is on his way with his entire family! This Christmas card was created by Swedish illustrator Jenny Nyström, who in the late 1880s played a major role in shaping the concept of how the tomte or nisse looked in Scandinavia. Her Christmas motifs remain popular to this day.

Rochester, Minn.

The nisse of Norway was discovered in the mid-1800s, but it is unusual to actually see the nisse. Small children and animals are the only beings that are able see him. The farms and households that are lucky enough to have a nisse benefit from the extra help he provides.

These supernatural beings ensure the prosperity of the farms and households. Nisser are typically the size of a 5-year-old. Nisser wear gray tunics, black knickers, and wooden shoes. They have very long beards. Occasionally, the nisse will marry, if one is lucky enough to find a nisse girl. She likes to wear a sweater and a red skirt. 

Nisser love the animals of the farm. They are friends with the horses, combing them and braiding their manes and tails. Farm owners never take out the braids as that is bad luck. The farms that have happy nisser will always have clean barns and extra wheat in the fields. 

During the late 1800s, there began to be a mix of traditions. In Denmark, it was believed that the Christmas nisse—the julenisse—would bring gifts to the children. As the nisser are quite small, they would engage the help of a goat to carry the gifts to the house. 

In Sweden, these supernatural beings are called tomtar. They may also bring gifts to the children. They carry out the same chores for their household and farm as in Norway. 

Illustration: Jenny Nyström / Alamy
Don’t forget that nisse expects a good portion of porridge with a pat of butter every Christmas Eve.

In Finland, their own version of the tomte, the tonttu, may live in the sauna, always helping out with the chores of the house.

During this time period, nisser or tomtar began appearing on Christmas cards. Jenny Nyström, a Swedish card and book illustrator, pictured them in groups smiling, working on chores, or enjoying the holiday. These enchanting illustrations have helped create and continue the stories and traditions of the julenisse to this day.

Today, there is a belief that every household or farm has a nisse, who is its protector. The property owner is careful to never offend the nisse and always keeps his or her distance. On Christmas Eve, a large bowl of porridge with a big pat of butter is left on the doorstep for the nisse. This is the reward for all the hard work the he has done. The children of the house will check the next morning to make sure the porridge is gone.     

The julenisse is never to be confused with St. Nicolas, who was a bishop in Asia Minor in the 4th century. He would give small presents to good children on Dec. 6, the feasting day. The now popular Santa Claus in the Western world was derived from this figure. It is no surprise that the Danish and Swedish custom of the nisse or tomte bringing gifts is now part of the culture mix. 

Today, gnomes are appearing as figures, along with traditional nisse and tomte decorations. Gnomes first appeared in Germany in the 1800s as lawn ornaments. These creatures were believed to live underground near the mines and other treasures. The style of the gnome changed in 1937, when Disney produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The style of the gnome changed again in 1976 with the Dutch publication of Leven en werken van de kabouter (Life and Work of the Gnomes) by Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet, translated into English the next year as Gnomes.

Today, these German-inspired gnomes enjoy a cleaner appearance, having shed their dirt and debris from the earth.

Many cultures have their stories of small preternatural beings. It is fun to honor these stories and to know how the traditions became part of contemporary life. If you are very quiet and patient next Christmas Eve, you just may see a glimpse of the protector of your home. Don’t forget to leave out the porridge with a big pat of butter.

This article originally appeared in the December 2, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Louise Lysne Hanson

Louise Lysne Hanson is the co-owner of The Nordic Shop in Rochester, Minn., with her husband, Walter. She is also on the board of directors of Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. Learn more at