Thursday, December 24, 2009

God Jul and Tend to Your Nisse!

I wasn’t planning on doing a post for today, but I remembered I had to remind you folks about a very serious subject before this evening: Remember to leave porridge out for your nisse!

For those of you confused, allow me to explain. Growing up in a Norwegian-American family, Christmas time always herald the return of the nissen around the house. Atop pictures and amongst everyday items would be found tiny men wearing red stocking caps. Many resembled tiny Santa Clauses, but usually only because of their white beards and red caps. Others bore a resemblance to elves or gnomes. The more you looked, the more you saw of these little creatures. They were the nissen or “household elves.”

In Scandinavian folklore, they are magical beings who live in barns and watch over farms. Their real world origins lie in the pre-Christian notions of ancestor worship, but, like many other pagan aspects, the nissen hung around long after the Christianization of Scandinavia in folktales and cultural tradition. From the 1840s on, the nissen became associated with Christmas and are commonly found as household decorations or taking on the role of julenisse (Santa Claus) and therefore shamefully putting the Yule Goat out of a job (we’re a strange people, we of Scandinavian descent).

While the nisse was a helpful creature, he was easily insulted and offending a nisse could lead to serious calamities and even death around the farm. In order to keep your nisse happy, you’d best be sure to leave a bowl of porridge with a pat of butter on it out in the barn on Christmas Eve. Failing to do this simple task each year could have dangerous repercussions.

So, even if you’re not Scandinavian, Christian, or even a farmer, why take any chances? Leave a bowl of porridge out just in case you’ve got a nisse hanging around…

No. Enc: 1 (1d4 on rare occasions)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 150’ (50’)
Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 2+1
Attacks: 1 (fists)
Damage: 1d6+3
Save: E4
Morale: 9
Hoard Class: None (or porridge)

A nisse (plural: nisser or nissen) is magical creature resembling a short human male. Nisse stand between 6” and 3’ tall, dresses in homespun garments, often has a long white or grey beard, and always wears a red stocking cap. Nisse watch over farmsteads, primarily looking out for the livestock, but guarding the farmer and his family as well if treated properly. Some believe the nisse to be the physical reincarnation of the farm’s original owner come back to watch over his property. The nisse most often dwells in the barn, but can occasionally be found in attics and lofts, provided those spaces are not too tidy. A few especially adventurous nisser take up residence aboard ships and are known as a skibsnisse. Despite his small size, a nisse possesses incredible strength (STR of 18) and can easily manage large animals and big hay bales. As magical creatures, they are only affected by enchanted weapons and spells.

Like many other “house spirits,” nissen assist the farmer by tending to the farm’s animals and performing helpful tasks. As a solitary creature, the nisse does not like to be disturbed in his job and will likely attempt to drive away any who disrupt his duties by trickery or fright (blowing out candles and lanterns or hissing at the interloper from the dark are common responses). Those unwise enough not to let the nisse be can count on a good ear boxing or being evicted bodily from the barn. In worse case scenarios, a nisse can become invisible at will. The farmer’s dog is often tormented by the nisse until it learns to keep its distance from the little man.

So long as the nisse is not insulted (see below) and his privacy respected, he is a valuable ally to the farmer. However, should he ever be upset, the nisse will cause calamity around the farmstead. Small slights against a nisse might result in animals being moved in the night (often ending up in the strangest places), having their tails tied together, the tangling of tack and harnesses, or sometimes a sound beating at his tiny hands. If greatly offended, however, a nisse can sicken animals, cause crops to fail, or start small fires. Sometimes family members are even slain.

Nisse are very traditional creatures and do not respond well to change. Altering the farm or the way it is operated is a surefire way to offend him, as is rudeness, urinating in the barn, mistreating his animal charges, swearing, or spilling hot liquids without shouting a warning. The greatest insult to a nisse, however, is failing to leave a bowl of porridge out for him on the night of the winter solstice. A pat of butter is placed atop the porridge to ensure the nisse’s continued good will towards the farmer.

For additional information:
Christmas and the Nisse
The Farm Nisse
Encyclopedia Mythica
The History of Nisse


Atom Kid said...

Great post! My grandparents immigrated from Sweden and we still hold up a lot of the traditions from the land of the midnight sun.

I don't know if it's just the difference between Norge and Sverige, but we always referred to the elves as Tomten and Santa Clause as Tomtegubbe (the good elf).

I had a Julbukk until my kids made short work of it. Oh well it's only made of straw.

God Jul, Michael!

Timeshadows said...


We Germans have: Mainzelmoennchen and Kuechenhexe that fulfil many similar roles. :)

Best to you & wishes for a Happy New Year,

Michael Curtis said...

Household spirits or helpers are one of those common aspects to folklore. Many cultures have them, whether they're called nissen, tomten, hobs, brownies, domoviye, or lares. They all are usually helpful, but dangerous if slighted, and require some small token of thanks on a regular basis. There's a link back to ancestor worship with them, which makes them universal to scattered diverse cultures.

I've been reading a bit of slavic folklore lately and the domoviye in those tales reminded me of the nissen in my youth and I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate Chrismas here.

Paul said...

Good stuff!

For a great animated nisse short (developed as TV bumpers):
go to
Click "Portfolio" and then "Reels".
Select "Showreel Nisse".

Joseph said...


As you might imagine, this post especially touched my heart. :-)

Glad Jol!

Andreas Davour said...

My Norwegian is not as good as it should be. But, in Swedish we say "nissen" in definite form singular, "nissar" in plural and "nisse" indeterminate form singular.

I find them highly curios, and it strange that they haven't gotten the same appreciation as the celtic fey have.

Anonymous said...

Being part Swede/German (as well as Irish and Britsh) I actually got it, which is rare for me.

Awesome post, Happy Holidays to you!

Havard: said...

God Jul! Great post! We celebrate those little guys over here (Norway) even today. :)