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August 29, 2014
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Julenisse; A Christmas phenomenon from Norway

According to Norwegian tradition, Julenisse is a Christmas elf that bestows gifts on those who have led a virtuous lifestyle.
Contributed photo


From pagan times, Norway celebrated a festival of light near the winter solstice on December 21. In the 10th century, King Haakon I moved that traditional feast to December 25, in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas is a national feast day in Norway, then and now. At 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve, all work comes to a halt. People dress in their finest clothes and sit down to a feast that starts with a first course of pudding. But before they eat, they hang out a sheaf of grain for the birds and leave a bowl of pudding (or cream porridge) for the barn nisse. A feast of roast pig follows and continues into the night. Long after the feast has ended, the food and drink is left on the table, so that the Julenisse can help himself. No one wants to risk offending him and bringing nisse wrath down upon the farm.

The Julenisse emerged around the middle of the 19th century, just as Christmas in Scandinavia and much of Western Europe was morphing into the child-centered family holiday celebrated in America today. Contemporary Norwegian folklorists view Julenisse as a refined and updated version of the nisse of Norway past. Like his predecessor, Julenisse has a nature that is both generous and judgmental. He bestows gifts on those whose virtuous lifestyle has made them worthy of the honor. And, like the nisse of old, he expects an edible reward for his efforts. He favors the headwear of his ancestor, and it’s no coincidence that he, too, manages to do his work unseen.

A deep faith in the unknown runs through the Norwegian way of life. Long before microscopes and telescopes, the nisse personified a Norwegian conviction that the eyes and mind of man cannot discern all that exists. Julenisse is the modern manifestation of the Norwegian belief that the eternal mystery of life must be acknowledged, respected, and given its due.

[For more information about Sons of Norway, visit www.sonsofnorway.com. New members are always welcome, and Norwegian ancestry is not a requirement; the primary requirement is having a strong interest in, and passion for, Norwegian culture. Visit www.3dsofn.org. Special thanks to Millie Diefenbach, Mikki Ryan and Sverre Aasgaarden.]