More Danish Christmas Hygge. This Time: Gnomes

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:

Christmas gnomes drawn by artist Alfred Jacobsen in 1898. Click through for source.

Christmas gnomes drawn by artist Alfred Jacobsen in 1898. Click through for source.

Beardless nisser. Click through for source.

Beardless nisser. Click through for source.

(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.)

Hola mis amigos!

Hola mis amigos!

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.

Aren't they sweet? The little ones are tucked all over the house!

Aren’t they sweet? The little ones are tucked all over the 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!)

mmmm omg I can't wait to eat some

mmmm omg I can’t wait to eat some

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10 thoughts on “More Danish Christmas Hygge. This Time: Gnomes

  1. I have a couple of the gnomes too – haven’t dug through all of my Christmas storage boxes so haven’t found them yet, but they’ll be making an appearance this weekend. I enjoyed reading this post!

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  2. Allison – All these wonderful gnomes and their history makes me happy this morning. Wonderful blog! And, I can’t wait to have some risengrød..it reminds me of the warm rice pudding (rice, sugar, cream and raisins — that my Welsh grandmother, Dorothy Jones, used to pop out of her oven all the time. The Danish influence must have reached Wales at some point. Can’t wait to see all your little gnomes and your wonderful new home. Love, Mom Pierce

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  3. I love the picture of the gnome dancing with the cat…they look happy and care free.
    I have a question unrelated to the gnomes…would you be so kind as to phonetically pronounce Hygge? Every time I read it I wonder just how badly I must be pronouncing it in my head!
    Thanks!

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  4. I need to comment on this too, as my mama bought a book of christmas traditions and read one story each night before dinner 😉
    The “beardless” nisser is actually the first “kravlenisser” ever drawn in Denmark 🙂 Try googling it, google tends to explain things better than I can! 😛

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    • Thanks for the info! I saw all those little paper nisser with the little tabs on them in the stores, but I wasn’t really sure what to do with them. Do people tape them up or how do they display them?

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