Julenisse; A Christmas phenomenon from Norway
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.