Odd Danish Christmas Traditions

Odd Danish Christmas Traditions

There is one safe bet you can make – there is no other nation on earth where Nisser are as popular as in Denmark. And they have a secret life, that most Dane are not aware of.

During the Christmas season, Danish shops, schools and homes are teeming with Nisser. They are crawling all over shopping bags, wrapping paper, teacups, ties and anywhere else with room for a picture of a Nisse. American culture has had a certain impact on Denmark, and some of the Nisser have changed. They have turned into Santa’s little helpers, elves living in Greenland and helping in the factory where all the Christmas presents are made. But there is much more to them than helping the Danes prepare for Christmas and looking decorative on the seasonal napkins and christmas sweaters.

Nisse on the job

The Danes are eager nisse-worshippers during December. In many workplaces, a nisse is secretly appointed among the staff. He or she is expected to do nisse things to her colleagues. It could mean for instance hiding small presents such as a piece of chocolate in the desk drawer. It could be good natured teasing as well, maybe hiding a favourite coffee cup or ball pen – but it should be easy to find it and be in a funny place. It is all very good-natured – nobody should be seriously inconvenienced or hurt, it is supposed to be fun.

Nisse as a part of popular culture

For 60 years now, there has been a very strong tradition for calendar stories on Danish television.. During Christmas month about dinnertime, the public service channels transmit a serial story lasting half an hour a day. There are always 24 episodes. The theme always has to do with Christmas, Santa Claus and Nisser. During the last 15 years or so, some of these serials have become more sinister. Before 2000, they were generally more cheerful, child friendly and focusing on the more benign problems of everyday life. During the later years, there are more examples of serials where society and civilization itself are threatened, should the protagonist not emerge victorious from the conflict with villains who appear to have escaped from the Batman set in Gotham City.

Nisse and Father Christmas

Santa Claus is the supreme giver of gifts, named after Saint Nicholas of Myra. According to legend, bishop Nicholas threw a purse through the window into the home of a poor man, thus becoming the future paragon of gift givers and at the same time providing Father Christmas with a name. Nisser are gift givers too – it is a quality they share with Santa Claus. They even share his name. Nisse is the old danish pet name for Nicholas.

On the decorations, Nisser are quite cute, generally short, elderly gentlemen with a large white beard and red clothes. Normally they are single, but not always. Female Nisser are somewhat younger, chubby, wearing red clothes, often a grey blouse. Nisse children are more rare. Green clothes for Nisser is not native Danish culture, but imported from the anglo-saxons.

You can buy Nisser as dolls or figurines. But by now it is time to ask some hard questions – what are these Nisser really? And what do they do when they go to work? In reality, they are not particularly cute, actually quite the opposite. They are moody, dangerous and have magical powers. Often they live near the homes of humans, in parts of the building that are rarely used and not lived in. You find them in Castles, Manor Houses and Farms. Sometimes they live below ground. They can make themselves invisible, hide in small holes in a wall or beam og shapeshift into something else, for instance a piece of wood or a bundle of straw.

Magical Nisse – a danger to society?

Back in the good old days, the relationship with the resident Nisse had to be nurtured. It has been a tradition to put a bowl of rice pudding in the hayloft on christmas eve, and sometimes also a replacement red cap. If not, you risked offending the Nisse and let’s not beat around the bush. Nisser are vengeful spiteful bastards when crossed. They can torment the cattle to death for the fun of it, pull the laundry from the clothes-line and dance on it in their muddy clogs. They can spoil the milk, cause the inhabitants to fall ill and drive them to an early grave. This is where we realise that Nisser are not acquainted with Father Christmas at all. They are not inherently benevolent creatures.

We find some clues by studying our neigbouring contries. In Sweden, they are known as Goa Nisse, obviously the same name used in Denmark. But the most common name in Sweden is “Tomta”. Tomta in Swedish means the parcel of land, where the house is built. Consequently, the Tomta or Nisse is the original spirit of the place, where the house stands and connected to the land and the house both.

Nisse – a universal Conspiracy against Christianity? No, not really

In Friesland, he is called Nis Puk. Pugs are subterranean demons, they can take human form, wear a long cap but are basically magical creatures and it pays to stay on their good side.

The fear of the spirits no longer dominates the danes and their ideas of Nisser. Today they are a cheerful part of the Christmas tradition, used for seasonal decorations in December, used for entertaining children – but Nisser are not on the side of the angels, generally they do not go on to the christmas tree alongside bright paper angels, lametta, christmas baubles and all the rest of it.

Denmark is a modern welfare society. It is no longer of vital importance to cultivate good relations with the wild, untamed invisible magic in the universe. So we are having fun with the little Nisser and do not think about their origins any more, and this feeling of safety and freedom from fear is actually nice.

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