Who are the Christmas Gnomes?

This article consists of an English translation (and adaption) of a Danish language article published on December 24 in Politiken, the biggest national newspaper in Denmark. The article focuses on a characteristically Northern European variety of Yuletide spirit, and follows a recent episode of Canadian folklorist Danica Boyce’s Fair Folk podcast, wherein Boyce refers to these spirits in English as “Christmas Gnomes”.

Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen, cand.mag., ph.d. Jens-André P. Herbener, Cand.mag., mag.art.

The Christmas gnome was originally a patron deity of the house, farm, or homestead. Over time, we’ve allowed this ancient concept to degrade into little more than a representative of Christmas consumerism – and we should expect its revenge.

Christmas is the most important holiday season of the Northern hemisphere. It is an incredibly dynamic practice which constantly renews itself. Many Christmas traditions that we think of as traditional in fact originate from the 20th century. Yet Christmas also works as a kind of time capsule, wherein ancient ideas and rituals may be found beside the new. An example is the New Year’s resolution, which may descend from Yule oath-taking at North European sacrificial rituals known from saga descriptions of the Viking age.

Another ancient motif is the Christmas gnome, a primary Christmas symbol in Scandinavia. Today the entity appears most visibly as a cosy Christmas decoration and as a helper for Santa Claus. But in earlier times, the gnome was the spirit of the home, the patron deity of the house or farm, and as such it wasn’t particularly associated with Christmas. In Denmark, some still set aside porridge for the gnome at Christmas, originally an offering to the house spirit.

Until recently, the gnomes were a part of a complex of gods and spirits who were everywhere in popular religion. One might find them associated with trees, livestock, the Moon, lakes, mountains, plants, stones, the harvest, farms, mountains, crossroads, and so on. Scholars of religion call this animism, an expression of religion that may be the oldest in the world—much older than, for example, the monotheistic world religions, such as Christianity and Islam.

In mental landscape of Northern Europe, there were little people, trolls, subterranean spirits, elves, wights, and the dead. Some of these beings could take on the role of a patron deity for a farm or a house. Depending on where and when, such an entity may be variously referred to as nisse, tomte, gårdbo, gårdvord, and a variety of other names. In English, we follow Boyce and use the word “gnome” to broadly refer to these beings. The gnome could live in a big rock, a holy tree, an ancient burial mound, or a stone setting near a farm. It could live in the barn or stables, or even have its own room in the farmhouse. 

15th century rendering of household spirits.

In Norway these beings were called haugebonde “mound dwellers” and could be seen as a kind of ancestor, who—sometime in the past—cleared the land and built the farm. Norwegians sometimes worshipped these house gods in the form of fetish figures reminiscent of ancient Roman practices. In ancient Rome, many homes sheltered wooden figures of an entity known as the lar familiaris, ‘the patron deity of the family’.

Norwegian house deity in a stone ido

When people didn’t see the gnome, it was often because the being had made itself invisible. But the gnome was also an excellent shape shifter. The house spirit could quickly turn itself into a horse or a calf. You never knew when it was close.

Wherever the dwelling of this home spirit and whatever its historical background, the Christmas gnome was an object of worship. It was surrounded by strict taboos and received offerings. For example, in Scandinavian folk practice, the gnome received porridge and beer every day. On holidays, this practice intensified: The home spirit received a special holiday meal. Serving the gnome porridge at Christmas may be the longest surviving and most resilient religious practice in Denmark. Here, the Queen of Denmark performs this Heathen rite publicly.

There was good reason to observe these rituals with diligence. The patron spirits of farms were helpful beings who provided fortune and fertility. But they would turn—sometimes violently—on those who neglected or mistreated them. They could beat a person with a flail, make the harvest fail, or even cause the death of a person who behaved badly towards them.

One story recounts how farmers frequently provided porridge to a protective gnome that lived in a great oak standing by a farm. A new family moved in, and a man from the family went out one Christmas eve and shot the oak with a silver button , hoping to kill this heathen deity. The luck left the place. The cows became barren and died. Everything went bad.

Another story tells of a farmer in Jutland. He met a gnome and invited it home. It came and blessed the farm with good harvest and fortune. Tracts of barren heath became fertile fields and livestock were plentiful under the blessing of the gnome. Yet the wife mistreated the gnome, and the spirit announced that it would return to its home among the Little People, and the farm’s luck reversed.

The Danish folklorist Evald Tang Kristensen (1843-1929) recounts a whole group of narratives about spirits leaving the landscape. This is often associated with the coming of Christianity. They fled the clanging of the church bells, the noise of the hymns, and the busy fuss of people crossing themselves. The reason for this is obvious: The church demonized these beings, associated them with the Devil, and even persecuted them. Worshipping them could be outright dangerous. For example, on April 4th 1693, after she confessed to having a gnome on her farm, the Danish government decapitated and burned Anne Palles. She was 74 years old.

Later, rationalism, industrialization, and secularization came. Natural surroundings became disenchanted and reduced to little more than the potential for resource extraction. In this new world, the gnomes were increasingly banished to the domain of “superstition”. Today the gnomes mostly exist as in the form of cute and cuddly Christmas decorations, or—as Boyce poignantly observes—they are reduced to workers in Santa Claus’s toy factory, capitalist workers for industrial times. Few take these once-respected figures seriously anymore. One exception is a fundamentalist pastor who, in 2010, publicly hanged a figure of a gnome. He believed it to be a demon.

In the old days, many perceived the house spirits as real in the most literal sense, and so maintained ethical considerations when engaging them. According to folk belief, such entities preferred to stay with good and honest people, and they abhorred the mistreatment of animals. The most iconic cause of their anger, however, was neglect. The house spirits were a source of family fortune, so most stories talk about how forgetting them hurts a family’s very life sustenance.

This is a fundamental animist concept, which through the ages has been one of the most common modalities of religion. According to animism, our fortune and the continuous existence and wellbeing of the world rest on maintaining a reciprocal and respectful relation to the world, its gods, and spirits.

Today most people have scrapped this relation. We have shot the tree of life with a silver button and Mother Earth gasps for her life. We have turned her partly into a huge stock house (resource bank) and partly into a gigantic landfill—a dump. We stand at the threshold of two enormous planetary catastrophes: the global climate crises and the sixth mass extinction. Were it possible to go back in time and ask animists (such as those who venerate house spirits) for the reason behind these catastrophes, you do not have to be Greta Thunberg to predict their response.

During the Christmas season, remnants of this old animism again appear, albeit transformed. In Scandinavia, these gnomes are one of the most common icons of Christmas and their story holds an urgent contemporary message. In this light, the message of Christmas is one of respectful coexistence with the world around us. It is a message of resisting the anthropocentric imperialism that continues to enthrall our age, a radical break from that reciprocal relationship we once understood from the gnomes.

Thus, one may interpret the old worship of the house spirit gnomes as embracing the necessity of maintaining a mutual and respectful relationship with the world, to which we owe it all. Otherwise we may only expect disaster.

Merry Christmas to all, and may the gnomes be with you.

The gnome rides the Yule Goat - John Bauer PD.



Decorative figurines of Santa, nisse, tomte etc. Wolfmann https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/18/Decorative_Santa_nisse_tomte_figurines_etc._%28nissefigurer%29_Fretex_%28charity_thrift_shop%29_Lars_Hilles_gate%2C_Bergen%2C_Norway%2C_2017-11-01_e.jpg (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Tomte Oushan Chen Chen https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f3/Tomte_by_sussi1.jpg (CC BY-SA 4.0)

On the Service of Ghosts Olaus Magnus (1490–1557) "Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus", book 3 http://www.avrosys.nu/prints/index.htm Public Domain

Stenbillede fra Røiseland. (Norsk Folkekultur, 1922, s. 61.) Julbocken John Bauer http://www.bukowskis.com/auctions/565/12-john-bauer-julbocken?gclid=CPOGlo-Kvq8CFUx0mAodr2qVyg Public domain Original Cropped