‘Nisse’ is a Danish Viking word. It replaced the Norwegian nyk during Danish rule from the 1500s. To this day a direct translation of ‘nisse’ is still ‘goblin’, ‘gnome’ or ‘pixie’. (A post about the origin of ‘nisse’ and ‘yule’ will follow soon.)
Norwegians have a couple of different nisse traditions. The considered original is the Barn Elf (Fjøsnissen) that dates back to medieval farmers. The Barn Elf used to be considered a devil, then a guardian spirit of the farm, and later became the mischievous, magical, little elf who lives in the barn and takes care of the animals.
The julenisse (Christmas Elf) tradition became popular from the 1800s. Even though julenisse has a similar tradition to St Nicholas, it is more likely to have developed from julebukk. Over the years julenisse has taken on a more American Santa appearance, however, the grey clothes and red cap of the Barn Elf are still favoured in costumes and decorations.
Another julenisse tradition is slowly creeping in – the American Santa Claus. Because of American influence, julenisse can now fly in a sleigh with reindeer, have little elf helpers and wear a complete red suit. It is likely that Santa Claus and julenisse will combine tradition but until then, here are some examples of the traditional Norwegian decorative nisse:
The decorative julenisse
Norway is very much into handmade crafts and it is certainly tradition to have handmade Christmas decorations around the house. Even the shop bought decorations have a ‘made at home’ look. As mentioned above, this julenisse wears similar attire to the Barn Elf. As the Barn Elf traditionally wears farmer clothes (as he also works on the farm) natural colours and fibres are used. Wool is the most common clothing for decorative figures but cotton is also popular. Straw, pine cones and felt are also common for nisser figures.
For a standard, felt or woollen shrink-washed booties and trousers are the usual for nisse. Socks are knitted.
Buttons on the trousers’ waist are common on decorative nisse – buttons on the waist were essential for old Norwegian farmers to hold up their trousers with braces. Nisse aren’t as fat as the American Santa Claus as they do a lot of work around the farm. (Farfar is still in the habit of wearing button-waisted trousers and braces!)
The most iconic garment of nisse is the knitted red cap. It is similar to a beanie, however, it is common for caps to have an extra long tail. Grey hair and beard completes the nisse style.
The nisse is often accompanied by a ‘nissette’. This seems to be a modern idea however, ‘nisse’ (nokka) in Old Norse could describe both a male and a female vagabond. As a couple, the nisser are called Nissefar (Elf Father) and Nissemor (Elf Mother). Nissemor wears similar clothes, grey with a red cap, and has grey or brown messy hair.
Nisser don’t have to be just grandparent figures, it is also popular to have girl and boy nisser (nissejente and nissegutt). In fact, it is not unusual to have an entire nisse-family. Couple and family sets always match with red and grey colours. Other natural elements such as straw and pine cones are particular decorative fashion for the modern nisse.
In recent years the colour blue, specially for caps, has made it’s way into the tradition thanks to the popular Norwegian Christmas series Jul i Blåfjell. And as you can see from the boy and girl nisse pictures, all the standards, such as red cap, can be broken.
Nisse take on many house decorative forms – dolls, ornaments, crockery, cushions, pictures, statues, bookends, candles and lollies. They are placed everywhere in the house, including outside. It has become popular in Norway to have a waist-high nisse-figure to greet guests at the door, however, this nisse is starting to look more like a jolly Santa Claus.