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Christmas myths like Santa or Yule Nisse from Norway

posted on 16th December 2009 under Culture, Habits, Tradition, Winter

Celebrating Christmas or Yuletide in Scandinavia goes thousands of years back. As the name implies, feasting is a major part of Yuletide traditions and who could blame them to find some lightening as the days became shorter and shorter; December 13 to 24 were days full of traditions that were instituted to insure the “resurrection” of the sun. In Finnish, it is “Joul” while as in Norway, Sweden and Denmark “Jul”. This gives a wide flavours of Christian and pagan histories, traditions and of course folklore. Today I’ll present you to the Yule Nisse or Tomte in Swedish. You may call him Santa Claus, but Nissen has a much longer history. I was at a Christmas market the other day and shoot some pics and hope you’ll get the idea:

Santa or Yule Nisse in Norway #1


History, myth and maybe a bit of facts, says that Yule Nisse is a combination of 4 historical personages:
An Evil Gnome/Ogre:
There is a very old Finnish legend of an evil gnome with god-like powers, named Jouluppukki – originally a really bad guy coming from the north, flying or riding on some beast (possibly a goat or a buck, joulupukki means Yule Buck). He would demand gifts from the people and if these gifts were not satisfactory, Joulupukki would wreak havoc upon the people. There is a similar tradition in Iceland where he was called Jolasveinar.

A Finnish Prince:
There is also a story about a Finnish prince named Lemminkaimen, allegedly the 12th son of Ukko and Akka (the famous grandparents of the Finish race), who was allegedly the sole survivor of the royal family when the so-called Christian Swedes invaded Finland. He was a benevolent prince-king who escaped the Swedes by going to Lapland in northern Finland. He wore red like the modern Santa Claus and rode a goat or buck and got the nickname: Joulupukki.

Thor or Odin:
A man-like god from the Norse mythology, with bright red hair flying through the air in his chariot being drawn by two goats. That would be Thor, a benevolent god who would bestow gifts to humans in return for porridge, especially around winter solstice. He may have worn red, as red is said to be “his” colour, and he is also known as the Yule Elf.
Odin was sometimes recorded, at the native Germanic holiday of Yule, as leading a great hunting party through the sky – riding an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances, giving rise to comparisons to Santa Claus’s reindeer.

A Catholic Bishop:
There allegedly was a Catholic Bishop named Nicholas, who was stationed in Myra, in present-day Turkey, who was said to have been extremely benevolent to children. After his death he was beatified by the pope and he became the patron saint of children. December 6th is St. Nicholas Day in many countries, including Belgium, Netherlands, & Poland.

Since I grew up in a village or at the countryside (and remember about 50 years back :lol: ), I so much remember another little fellow: The Fjøsnisse or barn gnome:
Santa or Yule Nisse in Norway #2

The Nisse shares many aspects with other Scandinavian wrights such as the Swedish “vättar” (from the Old Norse “landvættir”) or the Norwegian “tusser”. These beings are social, whereas the Nisse is always solitary. Some synonyms of Nisse include “gårdbo” (farm or yard-dweller), “god bonde” (good farmer) or Fjøsnisse (barn gnome). In other European folklore, there are many beings similar to the Nisse, such as the Scots Brownie, English Hob, the German Heinzelmännchen or the Russian Domovoi.

I remember – even if I didn’t grow up on a farm – that we always set out porridge to The Nisse at Christmas Eve (see the porridge bowl at the second picture in front of the cat and the Nisse!). We never actually saw the Nisse, but we saw foot prints in the snow and of course the bowl was empty the day after :-) While writing this, I get the Yule spirit and feel the anticipation for this feast season. This mixed feeling of fare and care for the Nisse and all other myths and traditions connected with the darkest time of the year makes me feel childish – even more, the older I get I think!

So how about you; any myth, traditions or special history connected with this Yuletide and Santa from your childhood?


35 Responses to “Christmas myths like Santa or Yule Nisse from Norway”

  1. claudioFisken says:

    you forgot two important character : Father winter and father time..

  2. celestial elf says:

    Great Post on Yuletide :D
    Heres an alternate version of The Night Before Christmas Or Yuletide or such…
    I wrote the poem and then filmed it to share
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJLiLa7G5Ig

    bright blessings
    celestial elf ~

  3. Lord Vader says:

    Very nice.
    I am just writing an article about Christmas and holiday folklore and this article was very useful. :)
    Thanks.

  4. Once again we share similar traditions – great post!!!

  5. Tinsie says:

    Since I’m Greek, my Santa isn’t St Nicholas, it’s St Basil of Caesarea. He’s dressed in red and white, looks exactly like the Santa you know, but brings children their presents on January 1st. Tradition has it that presents are opened a few minutes into the new year, so you have to stay up until gone midnight on New Year’s Eve to see what St Basil has put under the Xmas tree or next to the Xmas boat.

  6. lime says:

    well, i am a bit late getting here but i so enjoyed learning about those different variations of characters. the only one i was familiar with was the bishop of myra. i learned a lot. the nisse was charming. i think i like that story quite a bit.

    do you remember me telling about the pennsylvania german belsnickel who visits children at christmas, giving the good ones candies and the naughty ones spankings?

  7. BPOTW says:

    What fascinating information! Thank you.

  8. Ginnie says:

    Here in Holland, Renny, Sinterklaas day is on December 5 (not the 6th, as in Germany). It so happens that Dec. 5 was the day I arrived here in Holland from the States, so it was a day of GIFTS…the best Sinterklaas day ever. We’ve even had snow this past week, so I think we’ll have a white Christmas this year. Astrid says it’s the first one in about 30 years here!

  9. claudie says:

    what an interesting post Renny! i love learning about traditions all around the world and particulary all those wich concerne Xmas time!
    I will recommande this post to my daughter as she will certainly glad to learn about the old finnish legend and about Lemminkraimen!

  10. susanne49 says:

    Merry Christmas to you and Diane, renny. All the best wishes for 2010 and thanks for all your kind comments trough the year on my blog.
    Susanne

  11. kyh says:

    Very interesting post, renny! It’s enlightening to someone from a place where there is no snow nor Christian myths!

  12. tin-tin says:

    why did i get scared after this entry? :(

  13. Merry Christmas Everyone!

    Can we exchange links?
    http://miscelstuffs.blogspot.com?

    thanks,

  14. I inhale all these Scandinavian legends, must be because of my Danish heritage. As a child, I loved the Lucia Queen and her crown of candles. Desperately wanted to grow up to be her, but alas, that never happened.

    Have a wonderful Christmas, Renny!

  15. Dim Lamp says:

    I enjoyed your post Renny. Here is a little longer story about St. Nicholas, that some of your readers may not be aware of.
    Nicholas was born around the year 280 in a small town in Asia Minor, which is present-day Turkey. His mother had long prayed for a child, and like Hannah in the Old Testament, had promised God that her firstborn would be dedicated to God’s services. Even as an infant, Nicholas was a religious child. It is said that on holy days he would fast by refusing his mother’s breast until after sunset.
    Shortly after the turn of the century, Nicholas became Bishop of Myra where he was a kind and generous pastor. It was not an easy time to be a bishop, because the church faced enemies from both outside and within. When the emperor Diocletian began his ugly persecution of Christians, Nicholas and his people suffered. When Arius attempted to subvert the true teaching of the church, Nicholas helped gather a council at Nicea in 325. He not only fought Arianism by helping to write the Nicene Creed that we still use today, but also boxed Arius alongside the head.
    Perhaps the most famous story of Nicholas concerns a man who lived alone with his three lovely daughters. The poor man was not able to marry. Poor girls in those days either were sold into slavery or became prostitutes–both horrible choices (unfortunately not much has changed in several poor nations today regarding their abusive treatment of daughters). To save the eldest daughter, Nicholas placed a large number of gold pieces in a small bag and tossed it through an open window. Later he did the same for the two younger women. Though he attempted to provide the gifts anonymously, he was discovered by the father during his third visit. Many people think this is one of the origins of giving gifts at Christmas. During the middle ages, pictures of St. Nicholas always included three gold pouches.
    St. Nicholas traditions developed in European countries under different names. In Germany he is Weihnachtsmann, Pere Noel in France, and Father Christmas in England. In Holland he is known either as St. Nicholas or Sinta Claes, from which we get Santa Claus.
    The Dutch legend is said to have begun when Nicholas traveled to Holland from Myra, dressed in his red bishop’s robes, riding a white horse, and accompanied by his servant Black Bart. As he rode the streets he carried a sack full of gifts for children–toys, oranges, and coins. Wherever he saw a child he asked their parents, “Has your child been good?” If the answer was yes the boy or girl received a gift. If the answer was no, Black Bart shook a stick at the children, who ran and hid behind their mother’s skirts. People understood that the presents the good bishop delivered were gifts from God.
    One day Nicholas and Black Bart came to a small hut where there were no windows and the doors were closed. “How shall we deliver our gifts?” Nicholas asked Bart.
    Looking up at the roof, Black Bart suggested that they drop the presents through the chimney. “Splendid idea,” the bishop exclaimed. The two men climbed the roof, dropped the gifts through the chimney. Miraculously, the gifts all landed in stockings that the children hung up to dry. Thus a new custom was born.
    Few saints give inspiration to as many groups and nations as the gentle bishop of Myra. Even today he is claimed as the patron saint of students, sailors, travelers, and vagabonds. Through the legends he has shaped a noble tradition of generosity and kindness, particularly to children, during the season of our Saviour’s birth.
    God Yule Renny and to all of your readers as well!

  16. Jillian says:

    These stories are exactly what I am looking for to read to my children. Thank you!

  17. That’s a different culture of Yuletide in Norway.
    Most Singaporeans don’t celebrate Christmas so there is definitely no Singapore version of Santa Claus. :)

  18. Hi Renny, finally I am back again blogging since it’s juleferie!

    I quite interested with Norse Mythology since I stumbled a book about it when I was like 8 or 9.

  19. Mark H says:

    There seems to be so many origins and fables connected with Christmas and the man in the red suit. Sonehow, Santa seems more Scandanavian than anything else so I greatly enjoyed your explanations.

  20. RuneE says:

    It is nice to see that our good old Julenisse gets in a word amid all the new-fashioned Santas. This is the REAL one!

  21. Zhu says:

    Very interesting!

    To me Scandinavia and Norway equal Christmas. The scenery, the coziness of the house… It is Santa Claus territory!

  22. Vagabonde says:

    This is an interesting post. I only knew Santa as Papa Noël and did not really know how it originated. So I read a lot about it and talked with Christian scholars. I found out that many people in this country (the USA) do not know the true origins of Christmas. It does have real pagan origins. Earlier generations of Christians were aware of this. Some of them were offended by the holiday’s Pagan associations and would not celebrate it. Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell outlawed the celebration in England, and his prohibition against Christmas was kept by the Puritan colonies in the New World. Even Baptists in times past condemned the holiday, and if you celebrated it you would get a fine. To this day Jehovah’s witnesses and some other fundamentalists perceive it as contrary to Christian teachings, and not without reason. It became popular in the late 1800s only, as a commercial holiday. The reason it was not celebrated as the birth of Jesus, was that this date was fixed in Rome in the 4th century order to overshadow the profane ceremonies for the Birthday of the Invincible One (Mithras) which had always been celebrated on 25th December for thousands of years. The early Christian scholars knew that too, but most people are not aware of it. Christmas is now for the first time being touted as a strictly religious observance in a big way (above all in the US) but that was not its origin. You cannot “go back” to what was never there.

  23. DianeCA says:

    I like this post very much, and the comments are also very interesting to read. Very well done everyone!

  24. Petty Witter says:

    What a fascinating post, I love learning the legends of other peoples and cultures and this certainly didn’t disappoint. A time of year when the child comes out in many of us, it was so interesting to hear your story, thanks for that.

  25. The trend of substituting Happy Holidays for Merry Christmas was a conceit of political correctness that has quickly grown old and tiresome. Wish your friends a Merry Christmas with a clear conscience. Consign those who object to Scrooge.

    Of all these charming legends only Nicholaus is a real historical figure. He was born to parents who were old and quite wealthy and who died while he was just a boy. He was raised in a monastery by his uncle and became a priest while still a young man. He was fond of children and probably many of the legends about him have some basis in fact. We know he lived near the end of the 4th century and attended the Council of Nicaea.

    He was revered by many and the legends of Saint Nicholaus spread all over the world taking shape according to local custom. He is often understood as a blending of the real St Nick with older pagan mythology. So he rides a horse, or a goat, or a sleigh according to local.

    You are correct that he is the patron saint of children, also of sailors, merchants, even pawn brokers. The 3 gold balls which indicate a pawn shop represent the 3 bags of gold he tossed down the chimney for the poor man’s daughters dowery. But that is a different story.

    Don’t worry that the season has become commercialized and Santa gets more recognition than Jesus. In one way or another it is all about sharing love, and God is love whether we know it or not. So God Yul, Joyeux Noël, frohe Weihnachten, Feliz Navidad, Happy Christmas, or Happy Birthday Jesus, it’s all good news!

  26. corinne says:

    I grew up Catholic, so we would celebrate Advent and more of the Christian mythology than Santa. While Santa was important, he always seemed rather tacked on to our family Christmases.

    My mom has a great nativity set, and during Advent we children would move the Three Wise Men (or Three Kings) through the living room and dining room to where the nativity set “barn” was in place. My mother would wait until we were asleep to set baby Jesus in place so he would be there Christmas morning. Where he (the little statue) was hidden away was always a great mystery we tried to figure out…. But we also left out milk and carrots and celery for Santa and his reindeer (because Mom the dietitian felt that he probably got enough cookies throughout the night…didn’t figure out til later that she wasn’t too stoked about eating all those cookies!) .

    What a great post, and thanks for bringing back all these memories, Renny!

  27. I am 26 and I get to do all of the cooking at my home for the first time ever! it will just be for my mom… but still it’s a big deal, my mom is such a good cook so I want it to be just as good as hers!

  28. Maria says:

    That nice to know the traditions and Nordic mythology. In Spain we have the Three Kings, which are to be the three kings who brought gifts to the newborn Jesus. Every 5 January, the Spanish children await the arrival of the Magic three Kings arriving on camels uploaded. Jajaja few memories of my childhood. Very nice.
    In recent years Spain has been installed in the Anglo costum Santa, but only makes a small gift and the Kings are what bring many gifts to good children, like me.

    Thanks for telling Renny and make me your ways.

    Hugs

    Maria

  29. BLOGitse says:

    Joulupukki – I noticed that Finnish word first!
    Your posting is really xmasxmas…

    Comedy Plus: it’s the fear…It’s the same phenomenon all over the globe…so sad…

    But life goes on and hopefully there are enough brave people to open their mouths!
    There’s always hope!

    Have a great day!

  30. We use a word here that’s very similar to your word “Jouluppukki” and I wonder if that’s the origin of it! We say we’re going “juleypookin” when we’re joking about going dancing or partying or having fun in some way. Here in rural Arkansas I’m sure there are some Norse descendants so it really makes me wonder if your word is the origin of our juleypookin.

    Have a wonderful Christmas season, Renny. God Yul! :-)

    Love and hugs,

    Diane

  31. Comedy Plus says:

    When I was young it was Christmas. The birth of Jesus. We are not allowed to say Christmas anymore here. It’ Happy Holidays. We don’t have a Christmas tree it’s a holiday tree. Anything Christian is frowned on here. Our president even says we aren’t a christian nation. It’s indeed a shame.

    Enjoy feeling like a kid and hang on to those things that make Christmas was it’s meant to be for you and your family. Merry Christmas from our home to yours. :)

  32. EXCELLENT Post! (I am going to have to link up…)
    I have to say I am REALLY missing the good ol’ cheesy MALL SANTA this year…
    I like Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick

    Thanks for explaning the Norwegian nisse…because I have always been a little confused about it! God Jul! See you in Jan!

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