Artist: Arthur Rackham (1867-1939)

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Julenisse: Scandinavian Yule/Christmas Fairies

Julenisse by Curt Nystrom Stoopendaal (1893-1965)
In the Norse tradition, a type of fairy called a nis or nisse takes the place of Santa Claus, bringing gifts to good children on Christmas Eve.

Nisse, according to the nineteenth-century Irish historian and author Thomas Keightley, are the same type of fairies called “brownies” in southern Scotland and England, “kobolds” in Germany, and tomte in Sweden. They are also sometimes called “gnomes.” Keightley suggests that Nisse is a shortened form of the name Nicholas, in the same way that the names Niels, Niclas, and Klas or Claas are. So the Julenisse is the nis that comes during the pre-Christian festival Jul or Yule, the celebration that is held at the winter solstice. When Norway converted to Christianity in the tenth century, King Haakon I moved the Yule celebration to coincide with Christmas, and over time Yule became the Norwegian name for Christmas.

In Scandinavia, Yule is not just a day—it’s an entire season, beginning in mid-December and lasting until mid-January. It begins on December 13, the day when the sun sets the earliest. December 13 is celebrated in Scandinavia as Santa Lucia Day, which, according to travel writer Rick Steves, “kicked off a period when gnomes and trolls ran wild and no work was allowed.” During that time, people left out a gift of food—porridge with a pat of butter on top was traditional--for the Julenisse, just as children leave cookies and milk for Santa. Rick Steves says, “Many farms would make up a bed for the nisse on Christmas Eve, and set an honorary place for him at the table.”

The Julenisse resembles Santa Claus in more than just his name. He looks like an old man with a white beard. According to author Edain McCoy, his face is “merry and kind.” Traditionally, he wears a grey suit and a red cap, although some illustrators make his suit red rather than grey. He also rewards good behavior by performing work around the family farm, like sweeping the kitchen and currying the horses.

The Julenisse is also like Santa’s elves: he is smaller than a human (Keightley says that he is about the size of “a year-old child”), and he is an expert worker. His clothes and hat also resemble those of Santa’s elves. Some sources say that his ears are slightly pointed, and some refer to the Julenisse as an elf. It seems likely that the Julenisse influenced our modern concept of Santa—and of Santa’s elves.

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