The Danish “Nisse” – from Roman God to Santa’s Helper

The nisse (“neh-seh”) has been around for so long it’s become a ubiquitous cultural figure. You probably don’t know it as the nisse. You may know it as an elf. Or a goblin. Or a gnome. In Denmark, however, it’s a nisse. Let me tell you about its history. Let us learn where your idea of a nisse meshes, and perhaps even clashes, with mine.

The Nisse as a Roman Household God (750 BC – 500 AD)

Historians believe the oldest ancestor of the nisse to be the Roman household God Lar Familiares. In return for his housekeeping services, Lar Familiares demanded payment in the shape of sacrifice and prayer from the family whose house he protected and maintained. The Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 BC) referenced Lar Familiares in “Aulularia”, a play in which the god helps an old man hide a pot of gold. When the old man dies, his son desires the pot of gold, but Lar Familiares won’t reveal where the pot is hidden, claiming the son has neglected praying to him. Only when the daughter-in-law interferes, befriending the God through her prayers, does the pot of gold find its way to her.

Lar Familiaris (wikipedia)
The Beginning of Lar Familiares as a Nordic Nisse (981)

The first documented account of a Nordic nisse is from the year of 981. It’s the saga of the Norwegian King, Olav Tryggvason. Given that the saga is from a historical period during which Christianity was slowly blanketing Scandinavia as a whole, the nisse was by default heretical in nature.

From Olaus Magnus’ Historie om de nordiske folk, 1555

The saga tells the story of an Icelandic farmer by the name of Kodran. A creature called Årmanden (“The Year Man”) lived inside a rock on Kodran’s property. In return for Kodran’s sacrifices to Årmanden, Årmanden gave Kodran advice on the future and the farm, telling him what crop to invest in, what livestock to keep… but only until Kodran’s Christian son visited the farm. The son had a priest in tow. They convinced Kodran to turn his back on the heretical Årmand after which they expelled him from his rock by spraying it with holy water and singing psalms.

The Nisse as a Heretical God (1000-1750)

Christianity rolled across Denmark, creating hell on earth for the nisse, putting it in the same category as the Devil himself with monotheism to blame for it. In the 1200s, the Swedish nun (who was later sainted) Birgitta Birgersdatter wrote a decree against the nisse, warning against praying to the heretic God. Likewise, the German monk and reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) instructed priests in how to exorcise the nisse. Denmark’s last officially convicted witch, Anne Palles, was executed on April 4th 1693, but not before she confessed that a Niels Goddreng lived on her farm. In the shape of a horse, no less. “Nisse” is a noun created from the name “Nis”, which is a nickname for “Niels”. “Goddreng” translates as “good boy”. As such, Anne Palles confessed to having Nisse Good Boy living on her farm. Such a heretical claim no doubt helped incinerate the flames of the fire that soon saw her burned.

When Niels Gårdbo Terrorized the Farmers… (400-1500)
Eventyr om Nisser, H. C. Ley, 1849

Gårdbo was an earlier Danish name for “nisse”. “Gård” means farm, and “bo” means live. Before Christianity, during the middle ages, a Gårdbo was believed to live on every farm in existence. Niels Gårdbo, Lille Niels or Tomten was an elderly, pipe-smoking man with an extremely hotheaded temper. Every Saturday he demanded “sødgrød” (porridge) in return for assisting the farmer in feeding the animals and tending the fields. If he was given no porridge, hell broke loose. He would tie the cows’ tails together, would ruin the farmer’s tools, or even exert physical violence on the farmer and his family. A Norwegian folktale tells of a girl who ate the porridge and was beaten to a bloody pulp by the Gårdbo so that she nearly died.

An unhappy Gårdbo could also choose to leave, leading to catastrophe for the farmer; if the Gårdbo left of his own volition, he took all luck and fortune with him. On the other hand, the farmer could not escape his Gårdbo. The Gårdbo followed the farmer no matter where he moved. Needless to say, the best a farmer could do was to treat his Gårdbo right.

The Nisse as Santa’s Helper (1800-now)

“Julemanden” (Santa) was introduced into Danish culture around the 1800s. At this same time, the first book was published that attempted to account for the idea of the nisse. One hundred years later, by the year 1900, the hot-tempered Gårdbo had become the Julenisse. “Jule” means “Christmas”. This link between the idea of the Gårdbo and the later Julenisse shows in the beloved Danish Christmas song from 1911, På Loftet Sidder Nissen med sin Julegrød (“the nisse sits in the attic with his Christmas porridge”). Relatedly, Danish parents put porridge in their attics during Christmas time, and while their young children were asleep, they would scoop porridge from the bowl, making the children believe that the nisse had eaten the porridge during the night.

In 1836, the Danish painter Constantin Hansen hosted a Christmas party in Rome. As part of his decoration, he put up paper-clippings of a red-orange nisse on a black background – the very first julenisse in history. Not long after that, the nisse appeared in Christmas tales all across the Nordic countries. Then, in 1858, the first female nisse came to life. Suddenly, the nisse was no longer a household God who stomped terrorized poor farmers in return for porridge; now he helped Santa deliver gifts to children all across the world.

From Greenland, of course, and not the North Pole, as any good Dane will tell you…

Den Store Danske Encyklopædi, Gyldendal, Bind 14, 1999.

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