Danish Folklore: The Tomte Beyond Christmas


The tomte, also called the nisse, is most popularly known as a kindly brownie-like creature of Danish folklore. Like his British cousin the brownie or hob, the tomte has been believed to aid kind-hearted farmers with their duties, making the fields yield a bumper crop, and the livestock double in their yield of milk, wool, calves and kids even in the middle of the harshest winter.


At times, he is considered to be a Scandinavian version of Santa Claus, delivering gifts to children on the eve of the holiday. Just like his bowl-full-of-jelly jolly counterpart, the tomte is known to ride a sleigh driven by reindeer through the town – although he prefers to stick to the ground, and enter homes through the front door, as that is the polite thing to do.


However, there is much more to the tomte than meets the eye, and there is a decidedly darker tone to his fey existence, and he is one creature not to be slighted without having to face the direst of consequences.


The tomte is first and foremost not just a house spirit that resides in a home along with its human inhabitants, but is the protector of the estate from famine and misfortune. He is fundametally a shapeshifter, but his best-known form is that of an elderly man with a full beard, dressed in farmer’s garb, with eyes that glow in the dark.


Despite his size – half the height of a full-grown man –, the tomte is known to have immense strength. How else would he get all the tasks done in an evening as the farmer slept on? However, the tomte is also a stickler for rules and manners. All he asks in return is for a bowl of porridge with a pat of butter on top. Any deviation from this offering – and woe betide the poor fool who decides to dine on the porridge – will incurr the tomte’s wrath. He may do something as mischevous as tie two cow’s tails together, to a much more harsher punishment as killing off the farmer’s favored livestock.


The tomte’s favored creature was the horse, and caring and grooming a horse well will often earn the tomte’s approval and favor. The fey folk may decide to infuse more vigor into a particularly handsome and healthy steed, or perhaps even braid its mane and tail. Of course, to human eyes, the braids may simply look like tangles from negligent brushing, but wiser ones know enough to not undo the tomte’s hard work, lest fearsome punishments befall them.


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