Nisse: Yuletide Homestead Helpers

winter crittersI love learning new things.  This last week’s Zoom needle felting classes were hosted with Vesterheim Folk Art School (based in Decorah, Iowa), with a class that proved to be so popular we added a second date to accommodate the waiting list, which also filled up in just a matter of days from opening registration.  The project of choice was needle felting a gnome—or nisse (said Niss-ah), as they are called in Norway.

I had grown up with the fantastically watercolor-illustrated gnome book by Will Huygen and Rien Poortvliet, showing the classic blue-and-red dressed characters living in their natural habitat in remote northern Europe.  Gnome is the German word for these small, human-like creatures of folklore, while in Sweden the name of choice is tomte.  In this classic gnome book, these characters are stewards of the forest, helping the injured or distressed woodland animals, picking berries, and keeping cozy in their homes beneath giant trees.

When discussing the nisse with my Norwegian-enthusiastic Zoom students, I began to learn that these characters had a different habitat and role.  Patti Goke, a rosemaling instructor who was taking the class was so kind to send me an article afterwards from The Norwegian American by Henning Sehmsdorf.  In it, the author relates that rather than being a woodland character, the nisse is a “homestead sprite,” living within the house or barn or nearby rocks and helping to take care of the chores and other duties, especially at night, so long as they felt appreciated.

One of the ways to show appreciation for your homestead’s nisse was to leave a bowl of porridge with a pat of butter on top for them on Christmas Eve, much like leaving out a bowl of milk for the faerie in Celtic cultures or cookies for Santa.  In fact, even the name nisse (a later-adopted word for these characters that replaced tomte, gardvold, tusse, and other regional names) has Christmas connotations.  Sehmsdorf writes:

The collective name nisse entered the Norwegian farm sprite tradition from Denmark, probably as a noa-name— a flattering synonym or nickname used to avoid calling on the household spirit inadvertently. The name nisse, which has been translated as “dear little relative,” apparently was derived from Niels, a Danish form of Latin Nicolaus (Greek Nicolaos), the name of the saint who in medieval times was widely venerated as protector of children and seafarers. Nis or Nisse are pet names for Niels or Nikolas (as Lasse is a pet name for Lars).

So old St. Nick has connections with gnomes and nisse!  (Read the full article here.)

There is even the julinesse (the j is said as a y, so yule-nisse), who is especially associated with Christmastime and eventually morphed into our idea of Santa’s elves.  And just as our Santa is known to keep a list of how kids have been behaving, the nisse know if you have been appreciative and respectful of their work.  A scorned nisse can wreak havoc on the crops and terrorize the livestock.  Better to stay on their good side!

These quirky characters traveled in the hearts and minds (and some say even the luggage) of the Scandinavian immigrants that came to America.  Younger children of farming families who had no hope of inheriting precious land in their native country were leaving the countryside in the mid to late 1800s—either for the developing industries in growing cities or overseas to a new life in America.  They brought their rural consciousness with them, including their beliefs in the nisse.

Today, most of the trickster aspects have faded away to a more playful character for the windowsill or hearth (or even the Christmas tree), which is where many of the felted wool gnomes/nisse we were making in class were destined.

“Oh, it’s so cute!” one of the students exclaimed after stitching on the eye beads.  “He looks exactly like my Norwegian grandpa did!”

nisse students

An article on Wikipedia about the nisse relates that some Norse folklore associates the nisse with the ancestors who originally homesteaded the farms, so finding your grandpa in your nisse is in perfect alignment with the tradition.

There’s a charm in thinking your homestead has a little helper, looking after the animals and crops.  There are plenty of places in the barn or sheds for them to hide, and I’d never know they were there.  What if some of those snowshoe hare tracks are really gnomes?  I’ll probably never know, but I do know that it’s fun to learn about them and their stories and to share a little bit of the julinisse at Christmas time.

Keep your sense of magic!  Good Yule!