This is one Danish Christmas tradition that I am fully on board with, and I’m so excited to share it with you.
The Danes love gnomes, or as they call them nisser. The traditional gnome looks just like you would expect (kind of like a garden gnome), with a pointy red hat and a big bushy beard. But if you Google “nisse” you get all kinds of different types, some young some old. Here are some typical versions of nisser:
(Frankly, they remind me of The World of David the Gnome, this TV show I used to love love love as a kid, which interestingly enough was originally a Spanish animated show based on a book by a Dutch author. I was such a multicultural child.)
So, the origins of the Danish nisse.
The gnome figure really comes from Scandinavian mythology in general, and Sweden, Norway, and Finland each have their own version of him.
Before Denmak had a Santa Claus figure, they had what was called either nisserfar, nisserkongen, or julenisse: the Gnome Father, the Gnome King, or the Christmas Gnome. During Christmas, each family had to pay special attention to their household julenisse. They must especially leave him some risengrød – or sweet rice porridge – on Christmas Eve. If they did, then he would be sweet in the coming year, bringing good fortune and even helping out with chores. If they failed to do so, the gnome would be very upset and play tricks on the family the whole of the next year.
This figure got updated after WWII, when American culture started to have more influence on Danish culture, to a version of the American Santa Claus called julemanden and the nisser sort of got converted into elves. Now, they help Santa build and deliver his gifts. However, julemanden still retains some features of the julenisse. For example, he still wears a red nissehat and he carries a big wooden spoon for all the risengrød he’ll be eating.
However, the original tradition of the household julenisse has continued, and it is a big deal during December in Denmark.
First of all, if you have kids then you definitely have a julenisse. One of Brian’s coworkers told us about how her kids’ school used to have a tradition. In December, the classroom julenisse would go home with a different child every night along with a diary. During the night, the nisse would play all kinds of tricks on the child, and the parents would have to record in the diary what the nisse was up to at each house. (Of course, this meant that if you were the 10th parent, you’d have to read everything that the other parents had been doing and come up with new and even more creative ways that the nisse could misbehave on your night!) When the nisse visited her house, for example, he put rice in her daughter’s bed and hid all her school books in the oven. Oh nisse, you’re so mischievous.
Second, gnome figurines are everywhere. Literally, everywhere. In every store that sells anything related to Christmas, you will find a version of a gnome that you can buy. It’s one of the big Danish Christmas themes for decorations, just like holly berries or Christmas trees or reindeer are in the US.
So I have totally jumped on board the nisser train. We already have quite a few nisser in our house.
And I am making sure that they get some risengrød on the 24th so that we have good luck next year! (Plus, I’d like to eat some myself. Have you seen it? It looks delicious!)