Artwork by Johan Egerkrans, from Nordiska Väsen (book)
The Nisse in Scandinavian folk belief is a guardian spirit of the farm and household, and is known by several other names throughout different areas including Tusse, Tomte, Haugbo and Tunkall. This spirit is most often described to appear as a very short (gnome-sized) elderly man wearing traditional farmer’s clothing. He is said to be the first inhabitant of a farm who spent his lived and died there, and would after death become this spirit.
Nisse are said to be incredibly strong, and are often said to provide help around the farm if treated with respect. One such tale describes a Nisse who drove the mill and did all the grinding at a farm so that the farmer only had to load the wagon and hitch up the horses. However, if the Nisse is not treated with respect his revenge can be a serious matter; one other tale describes a girl tricking a Nisse by putting the butter for his Christmas porridge on the bottom of the bowl before setting it out for him so that he will think they have neglected him. When he sees this, he goes into such a rage that he kills the family’s best cow. After eating the porridge and realizing that the butter was there all along, he feels incredibly remorseful and steals a fine cow from another farm to replace the one he killed.
Some Nisse are more mischievous than others. Stories tell of Nisse stealing fodder from other farms to help out the cows on their own farms, or even taking the cows themselves from the other farms. There is another story about a certain Tunkall who would throw guests onto the floor of the bunkhouse as soon as they would climb into bed. Of course, as clever as they are Nisse are not described as being incredibly smart. In turn they are not too difficult to trick, and they often work so consistently that they do not know to take breaks.
In later folklore, the Nisse has come to be strongly associated with Christmas, and is said to be the deliverer of gifts on Christmas Eve. His image has been somewhat changed over time in popular culture, as he has been merged in some ways with the figure of Santa Claus. However, he still retains his traditional Scandinavian style clothing as well as his short stature. One Christmas tradition in Sweden is to bake Nisse cookies, which are essentially gingerbread cookies in the shape of gnome-like figures.
Kvideland, R., & Sehmsdorf, H. K. (Eds.). (1988). Scandinavian folk belief and legend. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Rossel, S. H., & Elbrönd-Bek, B. (1996). Christmas in Scandinavia.
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.