As winter comes and winter goes, so do many of the traditions that were kept by our ancestors.
My grandmother was from Sweden. In Sweden as well as in other Scandinavian countries, it was important to take care of the small being that watched over your home or farm known as the Tomte, particularly at this time of year. Many believed that the Tomte was the spirit of the farm’s first settler, and it was important not to disrespect them, especially at Yule time or Christmas.
The Swedish name Tomte stems from a place of residence, the house lot or “tomt”.
Tomte are often described as small grey bearded men, half the size or even smaller than that of a normal person. Tradition states they dressed as a farmer, but in many depictions they look a bit like an elf or a gnome.
Image Source: The Tomten Poster
While they may have appeared small, Tomte were purportedly of great strength, and very protective of the farm or home. They could be easily offended by the careless or disrespectful. Swearing in the barn or treating the animals poorly might lead to a punishment ranging from some kind of prank to a thrashing. The Tomte were especially fond of horses, and their favorite would always appear sleeker and healthier than the others.
Tomte also watched over the children, were known to warn of danger — waking people up if there were fire for instance, they protected household treasures, and might even help with chores on the farm.
Placing a bowl of porridge out with beer for the Tomte is sometimes practiced even today on Christmas eve, connecting with what was once a tradition observed at the time of the Midwinter feast. If you are thinking about doing this though, remember that Tomte prefer their porridge with a pat of butter on top, and have been known to get pretty cranky if it is missing!
After Christianization, taking care of the ancient Tomte was demonized and connected with the devil. It was still prevalent according to the Wikepedia on Tomte, enough so that they had to forbid it, “…Farmers believing in the house tomte could be seen as worshipping false gods or demons; in a famous 14th century decree Saint Birgitta warns against the worship of tompta gudhi, “tomte gods” (Revelationes, book VI, ch. 78).”
Excerpt from the poem “Tomten” by Vicktor Rydberg in Swedish with English translation.
|Midvinternattens köld är hård,
stjärnorna gnistra och glimma.
Alla sova i enslig gård
djupt under midnattstimma.
Månen vandrar sin tysta ban,
snön lyser vit på fur och gran,
snön lyser vit på taken.
Endast tomten är vaken
|Deep in the grip of the midwinter cold
The stars glitter and sparkle.
All are asleep on this lonely farm,
Deep in the winter night.
The pale white moon is a wanderer,
snow gleams white on pine and fir,
snow gleams white on the roofs.
Only tomten is awake.
A very popular children’s bedtime book by Astrid Lindgren called The Tomten is available at Amazon and is based on this poem.
I love how in this book the Tomten visits and reassures all of the creatures, even the farm cat in the hayloft.
“…Then the Tomten goes back to his cozy little corner in the hayloft. There in the hay, the cat is waiting for him, for she wants milk. The Tomten talks to the cat in tomten language, a silent little language a cat can understand.
“Of course you may stay with me, and of course I will give you milk,” says the Tomten.
Winter is long and dark and cold, and sometimes the Tomten dreams of summer.
“Winters come and winters go,
Summers come and summers go,
Soon the swallows will be here.” thinks the Tomten.”
You can watch this story book as it is read here:
Connected to the wondrous Tomte is the tradition of the Julbock or Christmas Goat. These days the Julbock is typically a straw figure of a goat used as an ornament, but it is actually an ancient Yule symbol that goes well back into pagan times.
It is theorized that the Yule Goat stems from a connection to Thor, who had a chariot that was pulled through the sky by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr.
While Julbock has had many incarnations and functions, some traditions are that the “Jultomte” delivered presents to children carried in a cart pulled by a goat. Homogenization has gradually changed the Jultomten into Santa most places.
In some areas of Scandinavia a favorite prank was to place a straw Yule goat at a neighbor’s house without their notice. Once finally discovered the figure had to be gotten rid of in the same way.
Perhaps you may decide to add some of these more ancient symbols to your family traditions or observances.
In the meantime, we at Seven Trees wish one and all a God Jul!
No matter your tradition,
Be you family, friend, or guest.
We wish you joy and peace,
And may your Yule be Blessed!!
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