A Nisse is a mythical creature of Scandinavian folklore, called Tomte in Sweden and Tonttu in Finland – originally believed to take care of a farmer’s home and children and protect them from misfortune, in particular at night, when the house folk were asleep: type Fjøsnisse (Fjøs = barn). Nisse is a nickname for Nils, and its usage in folklore comes from expressions such as “Nisse good dräng” (= Nisse good lad, cf. Robin Goodfellow) – all names connecting the being to the origins of the farm (the building ground). Those names are remembrances of the being’s origins in an ancestral cult.
One was required to please the Nisse and a particular gift was a bowl of porridge on Christmas night. If he wasn’t given his payment, he would leave the farm or house, or engage in mischief such as tying the cows’ tails together in the barn, turning objects upside-down, and breaking things (behaving like a Troll). The Fjøsnisse liked his porridge with a pat of butter on the top. In an often retold story, a farmer put the butter underneath the porridge. When the Nisse found that the butter was missing, he was filled with rage and killed the cow resting in the barn.
The Nisse was often imagined as a small, elderly man (size varies from a few inches to about half the height of an adult man), often with a full beard; dressed in the everyday clothing of a farmer. However, there are also folktales where he is believed to be a shape-shifter able to take a shape far larger than an adult man, and other tales where the Nisse is believed to have a single, cyclopean eye.
He had temperament; Despite his smallness, the Nisse possessed an immense strength. Even though he was protective and caring he was easy to offend, and his retributions ranged from a stout box on the ears to the killing of livestock or ruining of the farm’s fortune. He was a traditionalist who did not like changes in the way things were done at the farm. Another easy way to offend him was rudeness: farm workers swearing, urinating in the barns, or not treating the creatures well would be soundly thrashed. If anyone spilled something on the floor in the house it was wise to shout a warning to the Nisse below.
The Fjompe Nisse:
I’ve never seen him, but he has been an important part of my memories from Christmas ever since I was a child – especially in preparing, like decorating the tree and house in general. The Fjompenisse was definatly a shape-shifter type, as he could come in (always at night) through the chimney or even the key hole. He definatly had temperament: One year I remember we had forgotten to take out the key from the hole and he had to use the chimney. You could then see his footprints of ash all around the house. The Fjompenisse was clearly a traditionalist too and did not want to be destirbed in his work. So the day before Christmas Eve, my sister and I had to go to sleep early, so that he had the run of the house all by himself. You see in Norway, the tree is normally (or was in the good, old times), not to be seen decorated and lit until the morning of Christmas Eve day. When sis and I woke up, we had to wake our parents and ask if Fjompenissen was finished before we went out in the living room.
Today I understand that these traditions are explained by the fact that mom and dad were very tired after a hectic pre Christmas time and needed the time alone to decorate the tree and the house. I don’t blame them “using” the Fjumpenisse as an excuse – to me it just made him more alive and involved. Going down the memory lane; I still have this mixed feeling of respect, anticipation and anxiousness about Christmas just because of the Fjompenisse. I was never afraid – even if he was a bit scary – I mean, mom and dad were always there to “protect” us ; -)
In the 1840s the farm’s Nisse became the bearer of Christmas presents in Denmark, and was then called Julenisse (Yule Nisse). This mythical character then turned into the white-bearded, red-capped friendly figure associated with Christmas ever since. Shortly afterwards, and obviously influenced by the emerging Father Christmas traditions as well as the new Danish tradition, a variant of the Nisse, called the Julenisse in Norway and Jultomte in Sweden, started bringing the Christmas presents in instead of the traditional Julbock (Yule Goat).
Gradually, commercialism has made him look more and more like the American Santa Claus, but the Norwegian Julenisse, the Swedish Jultomte, the Danish Julemand and the Finnish Joulupukki (in Finland he is still called the Yule Goat, although his animal features have disappeared) still have features and traditions that are rooted in the local culture – and as you can tell: in my mind : -).