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October 01, 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


Author’s Note:

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting the local chapter of Sons of Norway, Bernt Balchen Lodge #3-566, in Lackawaxen, PA, to learn about Norwegian Christmas traditions. From the good people there, and from an article by Sarah Asp Olson, “Norway’s Nisse” published in the December 2012 issue of SON’s official magazine, Viking, I learned how at Christmas ancient wisdom makes its way to us still.

LACKAWAXEN, PA — He’s only as tall as a toddler, but his long white beard proves that puberty was a milestone passed decades ago. Believed to live in farm outbuildings, he’s known to be mischievous and can be moody and unpredictable as well. Hardly fashion forward, he dresses in gray knickers and is never without a red stocking cap, which, when turned inside out, renders him invisible. Usually benevolent, he’s credited with tending to the farm animals and protecting the farm from evil spirits. In return, he expects some kind of edible reward, usually in the form of cream porridge and strong alcoholic drink. If the reward is not provided or falls short of his expectations, his nature will turn malevolent, and he can wreak harm on the farm, its animals, and the farmer’s family. It’s reputed that the bite of an angry nisse (elf) can be fatal within minutes.

A color-blind leprechaun? No, but his distant ancestors were probably of the same fairy-sprite family. He’s the nisse of Norway’s eastern and southern farm country, and he is, as the kids of today would say, legendary.

The nisse’s origins are shrouded in the mists of time, but he’s generally thought to be descended from the huldre-folk of ancient Norway. Like the wee folk of Ireland, huldre-folk tend to their business forever unseen, although their existence is accepted without question. There emerged from the huldre-folk one guardian archetype, gardvord, whose duty it was to protect the farm and all who dwelled thereon. In return for his protection, he was revered and provided with edible tribute.

Some mythologists claim that a plumb line can be dropped from gardvord to Norway’s Santa Claus, Julenisse. [In the Norwegian language, Jul means Yule, and nisse means elf; thus Julenisse is the Yule elf. Interestingly, Nisse is also a Norwegian nickname for Nicholas.] But no one argues the fact that the nisse figure emerged from Norse folklore and has become inextricably identified with Norway’s culture, transforming and evolving along with Norway’s own character.

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.]

Nisse wisdom is a prescription for virtuous life, long attributed to the nisse. An eclectic mix of common sense, nonsense and humor, here are some nuggets of nisse advice.
Change underwear at least once a year.
Stay dry behind the ears.
Tell the others a good joke every day.
It’s obligatory to take a ladle of cod liver oil daily.
Don’t tease your neighbor more than once a month.
Even if you’re wrong, don’t give in.
A good laugh extends life.
Don’t overwork when you don’t have to.
Save the pennies and let the dollars go.
Don’t let the neighbors get more hay in their barn than you have in yours.
View change with skepticism.
Stay in shape and lift a horse with one outstretched arm daily.
[Excerpted from “The Norwegian Nisse: Its Amazing Life and History” by Frid Ingulstad]

Recipes for Julenisse’s favorite food and drink are here provided, to safeguard readers from the retribution of a disgruntled Julenisse. Please note that strong beer can be substituted for grog.
Hot Apple Grog with Blackcurrant and Cinnamon
Serves five
3 cups apple cider
1/2 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2 dried blackcurrant leaves (can be excluded)
1/3 cup apple liquor
Bring apple cider to a boil with sugar, cinnamon stick and blackcurrant leaves.2
Let simmer for approximately 10 minutes.
Remove from heat and cool.
Add apple liquor just before serving.
Season to taste with more sugar.
[Adapted from New Scandinavian Cooking www.newscancook.com]
Cream Porridge
1 quart thick soured cream
1¾ cups flour
1 quart milk
1 tsp salt
Boil the soured cream (covered) for two minutes and stir in half the flour. Stir vigorously until the butter separates. Skim off butter and keep warm. Stir in the rest of the flour and mix in milk. Simmer the porridge for five minutes. Season with salt.

[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.]