Nisser are everywhere! Little men or women that hide in your barn, looking after the animals and the farm; playing tricks on you if you don’t look after them properly such as forgetting to give them a bowl of grøt and a beer for Christmas.
Nisser are the traditional Norwegian Christmas elves that extend back to the nordmen times, so instead of one jolly old fellow, there can be a whole barn full of little elves – men, women, children, aunties, uncles…
They are called fjøsnisse, literally meaning barn elf, (nisse for short), and are little magical creatures that hide out in the barn using their powers for good or bad, which depends on the care you give them. They are seen as tricksters; so if your axe is not where you left it or the tractor has been moved to another field without your knowledge, it must have been the barn elves.
Nisse shouldn’t be confused with Julenisse, which is the modern-day Santa Claus – the guy that now drops off presents to children in his sleigh. The traditions don’t cross in Norway, however, Julenisse and fjøsnisse are beginning to look a lot like each other through, cross-dressing the traditions.
The usual way to tell them apart in the stores is by their clothes. Norwegian nisser use traditional sweaters with knitted designs, or perhaps fur, and grey is the prominent colour. Sometimes nisser have a red cloak but if the pants are grey or brown, you’d think it is meant to be a barn elf.
These are definitely julenisser:
However, it seems that julenisse is starting to steal fjøsnisse’s style and colour, as Norwegians prefer natural fibres and designs. Julenisse is beginning to drop it’s all red suit and go for grey, fur and Norwegian patterns instead. So to tell them apart we need to look at his accessories; if he is carrying a sack full of toys or wearing glasses it is likely he is meant to be a julsnisse. With a walking stick, skis or a traditional sled, it is likely a fjøsnisse.
Definitely a fjøsnisse:
Norway used to be a place where most people lived on farms but now, as the population moves into modern living, the barn elf tradition is slipping away. It is sad to lose traditions, but when farms and barns are not a part of everyday living anymore, it is also natural. Traditions change, just like language and ideas.
However, even though the American idea of Santa Claus is becoming the norm in Norway, Norwegians are making the jolly old fellow their own by taking away his unnatural red clothes and flying sled with reindeer (as Norwegians know, reindeer don’t fly) and giving him a natural, earthy makeover, with skis, and a sack full of clementines and raisins to give out to children. Julenisse doesn’t slide down the chimney when everyone is asleep, he knocks on the front door to visit with the family and hands out presents in person so the children can say thank you, usually with a Christmas song. He might stay for grøt or a game, but he is quickly off to visit the neighbours. You just might say, Norway is reinventing their Santa Claus.