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In kindergartens and schools in Norway, it is quite common to have something called a "nissedag" at some point during advent. "Dag" means "day", and a "nisse" is a mythical creature thought to live at farms. They would do some sort of unspecified good deeds (at least if they were kept happy, by giving them some rice pudding from time to time), but generally be very elusive and only move about at night (a common trait among mythical creatures, as they would otherwise just be creatures). I guess you could say the nisse is more or less the Scandinavian version of the brownie.

A nisse is traditionally seen as smaller than a human, I'd say about half to one third the size of grown person, and they are usually pictured with white beards, and wearing traditional clothing such as a knitted sweater, plus fours (made from coarse grey wool, not tweed), woolen stockings and a red hat (after brushing up on my hat related vocabulary at wikipedia, I'd say it's similar to a Phrygian cap), so essentially old fashioned skiing gear. And this is precisely what people will dress up like at a nissedag (though in general you would get away with putting on a red shirt). But why this weird tradition of dressing up as mythical creatures, and how is this releated to Christmas?

The truth is that I have no idea how this came about, but I'd bet it has something to do with the Norwegian word for Santa Claus being "Julenissen", meaning "The Christmas nisse". In any case, there is a quite strong connection between Christmas and the traditional nisse. I don't think it's ever been a tradition to say that the nisse brings presents, or has any other specific role related to Christmas, but the nisse is still a very popular motif for Christmas cards (see Google Images: Nisse). Also, one is supposed to put out a bowl of rice pudding for the nisse on Christmas eve. This is the main topic of the Norwegian Christmas carol "På låven sitter nissen":

På låven sitter nissen med sin julegrøt,
så god og søt, så god og søt.
Han nikker, og han smiler, og han er så glad,
for julegrøten vil han gjerne ha.

English, courtesy of me:

The nisse sits in the barn with his Christmas rice pudding,
so good and sweet, so good and sweet,
He's nodding and he's smiling and he's very happy,
because he really likes Christmas rice pudding.

I think it's becoming increasingly more common to go to a nissedag dressed up in some sort of pre-made, Coca Cola inspired Santa Claus costume, but the last time I attended a nissedag (which must be something like 13 years ago), the majority of those who could be bothered dressing up at all was still going for the traditional look. Also, I mentioned earlier that an adult will often dress up as Santa and hand out candy at a juletrefest. It is also quite common to go for the traditional nisse look in this situation, sometimes complete with cross country ski shoes for good measure (the idea probably being that anything related to snow must surely give extra Christmas points).

-Tor Nordam


Camilla,  07.12.10 14:51

For the foreigners, a picture.

Anders K.,  07.12.10 17:36

The nisse-Christmas link has to do with the fact that the traditional nisse is one of the "little people". (Not what we today would call "little people", that is people suffering from growth hormone deficiency, but rather mythological creatures like dwarfs, trolls, fairies, etc. The Norwegian term is "underworld people", which also has a different, though no less scary, meaning in contemporary English. I guess another group term for smaller creatures of this kind would be tusse, ethymologically linked with nisse.)

In any case. These forces of the unseen are traditionally regarded as stronger in the dark season, for completely obvious psychological reasons. Traditionally, people would tell children to stay inside on Christmas eve, because all evil creatures of the world (the Åsgårdsrei, and after Christianity Satan and all his minions) travel across the sky on this day and may capture anyone who spots them. (This belief is currently obsolete.) The difference between the nisse and its inherently evil relatives is that he can also be swayed to do good. He lives on your barn -- the one with grey knitwear and a kind of drunkardy-looking face is also called a fjøsnisse (barn nisse) -- in close association with the animals. With him being half-human/half-creature, he can of course speak to them. His arsenal of mischief may include angering your workhorse against you by convincing it you're treating it worse than the neighbours are treating theirs, tell your hens what you actually do with the eggs, etc., or simply use his underworldly magic to turn your cows' milk in to blood. (When I told a Polish co-worker about this, he simply said "You have a horrible Christmas.")

But he's a traditional trickster, and like any trickster he has a soft spot. He's a real sucker for sour cream porridge, and for some reason one simple serving of this very basic meal on Christmas eve will keep him satisfied over Christmas and into spring, when people stop believing in him so much. And he will of course tell your animals that you are a kind and generous master deserving of their dedication and so on. In other words, he's a mythological mediator between the farmer and Nature in times of hardship, just like any god demanding its offerings. And the worst time of hardship for a mediaeval farmer in Norway would of course be Christmas, when he would suffer a diet exclusively made up of food preserved in mediaeval ways. No wonder they put some of it out on the doorstep to secure a bountiful spring.