Tomten - Who is this guy?
Swedish Santa Claus
Santa Claus, the jolly little bearded man who climbs down the chimney in the middle of the night, is well known in Sweden, but mostly as a result of Disney’s Christmas potpourri shown every Christmas Eve on Swedish television. In Sweden though, the giver of presents is the “tomte”, or Tomten.
Tomten is a little grey clad man who looks after the farm and all who belonged there: people, animals, fields and stores of edibles and seed. This little house gnome was moody and had such power that if he were displeased, much misfortune could fall on the farm. To keep Tomten happy a plate of milk or porridge would be left somewhere outside on Christmas Eve. The farmer and his wife breathed a sigh of relief if the plate was empty the next morning. That meant Tomten had accepted the food. Of course, some stray animal, a cat or hedgehog had probably enjoyed the nourishment, and perhaps Tomten approved of feeding stray animals too.
Tomten is the subject of a popular poem by the Swedish 18th century poet Viktor Rydberg “Only Tomten is awake”
Around the same time Jenny Nyström started painting him in red clothes, let him grow in size and made him more benevolent.
Although Tomten looked after the farm, he did not bring the family any presents. Instead present givers would knock on the outer door, open it, and throw the packages in, hence the term for a Christmas present in Swedish, “julklapp” (Christmas knock). It was said that the julbock (Christmas billygoat) came with the presents. My mother-in-law (RIP) remembers this tradition from her early childhood. Today however, Tomten comes at dusk on Christmas Eve, knocks at the door and asks “Are det any nice children here?”. Presents are then distributed, before Tomten hurries on to the next house. Usually an adult family member or a neighbour plays this role, at least as long as there are trusting children in the family. The billygoat has survived as an ornamental element made of straw.
Another tradition that many families keep is to have a rhyme on each package. The rhyme is read aloud by the Tomten stand-in and supposed to help the recipient guess what is in the package. The weeks before Christmas are spent composing good rhymes. In some cases families have had to create a “no more that 4 lines per package” rule, in order to be able to get through the whole “Christmas present distribution” ceremony with no child suffering a meltdown.
- Winifred Menezes & Örjan Hammarström