Joulutonttuja, Julenissen, Julnissen

In Sweden, Christmas gifts are brought by the Jultomten. The word Jultomten combines the Swedish word for Christmas, Jul, with the word tomten, which means household fairy or elf. The Jultomten is often depicted as a portly gnome with a white beard and a pointed red cap. During most of the year this creature hides under the staircase, in the attic, or in any other dark corner of the house. The Jultomten emerges on Christmas Eve, tucking small gifts into unlikely locations about the house. Capricious by nature, the Jultomten may reward or punish householders depending on his mood. Old customs suggest that the family leave small offerings of porridge and milk, or even liquor and tobacco, about the house to appease him. Each family or neighborhood may elect a member to dress up as the Jultomten. After assuming a disguise that will hopefully hide his or her identity from the children, the Jultomten knocks on the door with a sack of presents. When the door opens the Jultomten asks, "Are there any good children here?" and distributes presents accordingly.

Denmark, Norway, and Finland

In Denmark these Christmas elves are known as Julnissen, and in Norway as Julenissen. Although similar to the Jultomten in appearance, the Danish Julnissen does not distribute gifts. Instead, he lurks about the dark corners of the house, perhaps assuring himself that the family cares properly for the homestead. The Norwegian Julenissen takes after his Swedish cousin and does bring gifts. These Danish and Norwegian sprites become more active during the dark midwinter season. Like the Jultomten, they, too, must be placated with porridge on Christmas Eve if the householders wish to escape their pranks. Finland also has its version of the Christmas gnomes, called the Joulutonttuja. Unlike the other Scandinavian Christmas gnomes, the Joulutonttuja are cheerful, helpful creatures. They watch children to find out what they'd like as presents and help Santa make these gifts in his workshop.


In ancient times Scandinavian householders thought that the spirits of the land's past inhabitants lingered on, jealously watching over their old domain. During Yule, when the dead were believed to return, the thoughtful, and perhaps fearful, made offerings of food and drink to these ghosts. Folk belief gradually transformed these spirits into the Scandinavian household fairies known as nissen or tomten. These peevish elves guarded household and barn. When unsatisfied with the family's behavior, they punished them with small pranks, like making the milk go sour.

The figure of the Jultomten developed in the late 1800s. Before that time the Yule goat brought Swedish families their Christmas presents. The traditional Swedish tomten, or household sprite, is not associated with any particular season. By contrast, the Jultomten not only appears around Christmas time, but also delivers presents. The importation of German Christmas decorations in the late nineteenth century, featuring the gift-giving St. Nicholas, may have suggested the assignment of this function to the Jultomten. The English gift giver Father Christmas may also have influenced this shift. Some writers suggest that the Scandinavian Jultomten, Julnissen, and Joulutonttuja, in turn, inspired the invention of the helpful elves who became Santa Claus's assistants in the frozen North Pole.

Further Reading

Cagner, Ewert, comp. Swedish Christmas. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1959. Christmas in Denmark. Chicago: World Book, 1986. Ross, Corinne. Christmas in Scandinavia. Chicago: World Book, 1977.

Web Site

A site sponsored by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: (Click on "Language," "English," "History, culture, geography, recreation," then scroll down to "Christmas in Norway.")
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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