The Genealogy of the Swedish Tomte

Jenny Nyström Tomte Julbocken

By Lara Andersson

If you have ever visited a Swede’s house in December, it’s very likely you’ve come across a stuffed, gnome-like figure with a woolly beard and a conical cap cheerfully perched upon the fireplace or on the dining-room table. These little men, alongside Sweden’s quintessential straw goats, or julbockar, are integral to Scandinavian folklore and tradition. While many know and recognize these classic decorations, not all appreciate the far-reaching history of the Tomte.

Tomte, derived from the Swedish word “tomt,” or plot of land, literally means “homestead man.” If you’ve ever heard the beloved character referred to as a “nisse” it is likely in reference to a Norwegian variant of the mythological figure, as Nisse is a Norwegian nickname for the name Nils. Typically depicted as small and elderly, the Tomte is roughly half the size of a man, with rags for clothes and a heavy white beard. This miniature sprite has long been a symbol for the winter solstice and the celebration of yuletide, though his connotations have evolved over the years.

Originally, the “homestead man” was believed to be the ancestral spirit of the first farmer to have worked a given plot of land. Dwelling around the farm but careful to always remain out of sight, the Tomte is known to be a dutiful, hard worker. He cares for the animals, children and property at the homestead, asking very little in return but respect and the occasional bowl of porridge. At the inkling of disrespect – which can come in the form of foul language or a sudden change in an age-old tradition – he will not hesitate to stir up trouble. Tomtes are known to be mischievous and fiery-tempered, acting out through something as benign as mixing up the animals in the barn to much more extreme shows of chaos and violence.

One classic example of his fickle character is the story of Tomte and his Christmas porridge. For his loyal work throughout the year, a Tomte is said to require a bowl of porridge with a generous dollop of butter on top when the holidays come around. Legend has it that one year a servant girl jokingly hid the butter at the bottom of the bowl, and the Tomte was so infuriated by the slight that he slaughtered the family’s best cow. Upon finishing his meal and realizing that there was butter at the bottom of the bowl the Tomte felt guilty – so guilty that he stole a neighbor’s cow as a replacement to atone for his mistake.

While many viewed the prospect of having a Tomte as a blessing of good fortune, earlier believers associated the character with false gods and Devil worship. The Tomte was considered heathen; to keep one indicated not only laziness but also posed a potential threat to neighboring farmers, as the sprite was known to steal. In a 14th century decree the famous Saint Birgitta of Vadstena warned against “tompta gudhi” or “Tomte gods,” perpetuating the idea that these creatures put one’s soul at risk. Today, however, the Tomte is aligned more closely with the jolly Saint Nicholas than with his pagan roots.

Aside from their shared name and a few costume similarities, it is very clear that the homestead Tomte and the American Santa Claus with his jolly belly and hearty laugh don’t have much in common. How, then, did these two become interlinked? Tommy Kuusela, from the Swedish Institute for Language and Folklore, argues that it was through artists and authors that Tomte’s name and image shifted over time.

One significant factor in the evolution of Tomte comes from artist Jenny Nyström’s interpretation of Viktor Rydberg’s poem “Tomten.” First published in the New IllustratedMagazine in 1881, Rydberg paints a picture of the Tomte’s solitary life:

Midwinter’s nightly frost is hard —

Brightly the stars are beaming;

Fast asleep is the lonely yard,

All, at midnight, are dreaming.

Clear is the moon, and the snow-drifts shine,

Glistening white, on fir and pine,

Covers on rooflets making.

None but the Tomte is waking.

Nyström’s accompanying illustration offers a new kind of tomte, a mix between Tomte, Santa Claus and the yule goat, who traditionally delivered presents to children in Swedish folklore. The result was a shift in Tomte’s persona. He became an adult-sized man, friendly, carrying a bag of gifts on his back, often with his yule goat in tow.

While the original Tomte has not died out, he is much less frequently referred to than this newer model. Kuusela points out that this is a reaction not only to the international Tomte’s commercial appeal, but also the transformation of Sweden from a nation filled with country dwellers to city dwellers. “With citizens in the city’s electric lights and dense and bustling environment, Tomte wasn’t fulfilling his traditional role. Instead he became a symbol that could be used for different ends, from advertisements to entertainment.” This Tomte no longer does the hard work behind the scenes but plays the role of a benevolent celebrity, the focal point of Christmas celebrations.

This is precisely why a place like Tomteland, or “Santaworld,” located in a northern Swedish town called Mora, has become such a hit. On their grounds the organizers cater to fantasy lovers, offering visitations to fairies, trolls, witches and – most importantly – Tomte. The park, which opened in 1984, welcomes visitors all year round, but in the winter months they create a holiday paradise. Here you can encounter living Swedish tradition and meet Tomte up close. You can even have a glimpse into his workshop and see his sled. While the park delivers a rather Americanized Santa Claus, they offer a place called “nissebyn,” or “Tomte town.” Here, the small sprites have been given the task of preparing Santa’s gifts, fulfilling their worker roles with glee. “Forest Tomtes aren’t any taller than three apples high,” they write on their website, “and they live in small houses under rocks and treestumps.” Here the mythologies blend and live on.