The holidays are approaching again, so it seems like an appropriate time for some Norwegian Christmas culture. Last year I wrote a bit about the differences between American and Norwegian Christmas, but this year I thought it would be interesting to zero in on a single aspect of Norwegian Christmas. So, gather around kids, I’m going to tell you about Nissen.
What’s a Nisse?
Google translate says ‘nisse’ is ‘santa’ and ‘nissen’ is claus… and I’m thinking that google translate again proves its untrustworthiness. According to Wikipedia, a Nisse is a creature associated with winter solstice/Christmas depicted in Scandinavian folklore. It is gnome-like (often described a short – three feet tall or less, bearded, and a distinctive hat), while it is considered a Norwegian version of Santa, it is not the same as Santa.
According to Ingebretsen’s website, present day julenisse does not resemble the mythologic imp or gnome-like nisse of past stories (the tiny nisser that helped keep the farmstead running and were paid in porridge and ‘respect’). Apparently, modern julenisse tends to be depicted as an older, adult-sized man with the prerequiste long white beard, red hat, and suit. Very ‘Santastic’. He even comes equipped with a sack of toys, visiting homes on Christmas Eve asking, “Are there any good children here?” (“Er det noen snille barn her?”).
Encyclopedia Mythica describes the belief in guardian spirits as a very old tradition in Scandinavia. In southern Norway in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the belief in nisser was prominent. Some farms claimed to have a resident nisse that performed farm-related chores such as horse-grooming and hay carrying (more efficiently than humans).
It was vital to keep the nisser happy. Generally their happiness could be bought with a single bowl of porridge – with smørøyet (the butter eye!), of course. Said grøt (porridge) would be left out on Christmas Eve for the nisse. But, it was easy to anger the them with small missteps (see the stories below).
Encyclopedia Mythica offers a couple examples of stories in which humans do not perfectly please the nisser, or where their gifts backfire.
In one story, a farmer gifts his nisse a nice pair of white boots. The nisse then fears getting the boots dirty so much that he refuses to go outside stable the horses in the rain.
In another story, a young girl eats the porridge meant for the nisse. The nisse then forces her to dance nearly to death (an over-reaction, one might think).
But my favorite is the a tale where one Christmas eve, a farmer’s servant girl hid the butter for the nisse’s grøt (porridge) at the bottom of the bowl in order to play a trick on him. The nisse thought there was no butter on his Christmas porridge and retaliated by killing the farmer’s best cow. He then decided to eat the porridge anyway and discovered the butter at the bottom of the bowl. Feeling guilty for slaughtering the cow, he made it up to the farmer by going to the neighboring farm, stealing their best cow and replacing the murdered cow with the stolen one.
Anybody have any other favorite nisse stories? Comment below!