View Full Version : The Tomte - The House-Elf of Sweden (by Victor Rydberg)

Monday, November 7th, 2005, 09:38 PM
The Tomte - The House-elf of Sweden

If you are shopping for Yuletide goodies in a Swedish shop, you are as likely as not to encounter the Tomte, the Swedish symbol of Christmas. It is at a glance clearly another leftover from pre-Christian times, and an elf at that. Swedes are not unaware of the Tomte’s heathen origins, yet it is a part of God Jul celebrations. Here is an explanation from Florence Ekstrand from her booklet “Lucia, Child of Light”:

The Swedish Tomte, first cousin to the Danish and Norwegian Nisse, has been likened to the Irish leprechaun. But that’s not quite accurate. True, they’re both imaginary little folk, but while the leprechaun is found in field and forest, the Tomte by his very name is identified with the home and farm: tomt is the Swedish word for the site of a house- a lot or acreage.

There was a time when the Tomte was taken more seriously. In the 14th century St. Birgitta, Sweden’s most prolific writer of the Middle Ages, warned against tompte Gudhi, household gods, and urged people to stop giving food to the gods on the premises.

But in later years, the Tomte has taken his place with other folk creatures as a thing of fable; a guardian of small things, friend of household pets and the cattle in the stable, stubbornly loyal to his own environs, a little slow-witted, but clever in his own way. And all he asks is a bowl of rice pudding on Christmas eve!

The writer continues to tell us that the modern image of the Tomte was the result of the work of Swedish artist Jenny Nystrom, who turned out thousands of illustrated greeting cards. For the modern pagan and heathen, it is not to great a leap to recapture this heathen symbol as our own. Today, the Jul Tomte holds almost the same place in Christmas traditions as Santa Claus does in ours. In this spirit of recaptured traditions, we present Victor Rydberg’s haunting poem “Tomten”.


By Victor Rydberg

Deep in the grip of the midwinter cold
Stars send a sparkling light.
All are asleep on this lonely farm
Deep in the winter night.
The pale white moon is a wanderer,
And snow lies on pine and fir.
Snow glows on rooftop shake,
The Tomte alone is awake.

Gray- he stands by the low barn door,
Gray- by the drifted snow,
Gazing, as many winters he’s gazed,
Up at the moon’s chill glow;
Then at the forest where fir and pine
Circle the farm in a dusky line,
Mulling relentlessly
A riddle that has no key.

Rubs his hands through his hair and beard
Shakes his head and his cap,
“No, that question is much too deep,
I cannot fathom that.”
Then making up his mind in a hurry,
He shrugs away the annoying worry;
Turns at this own command,
Turns to the task at hand.

Goes to the storehouse and toolshop doors,
Checking the locks of all,
While the cows dream on
in the cold moon’s light,
Summer dreams in each stall.
And free of the harness and whip and rein
Even old Palle dreams again;
The manger he’s drowsing over
Brims with fragrant clover.

The Tomte glances at sheep and lambs
cuddled in quiet rest.
The chickens are next
where the rooster roosts
High above straw-filled nests.
Burrowed in straw, hearty and hale,
Karo wakens and wags his tail
As if to say, “Old friend,
Partners are we till the end.”

At last the Tomte tiptoes in
To see how the housefolk fare.
He knows full well the strong esteem
They feel for his faithful care.
He tiptoes in to the children’s beds
Silently peers at their tousled heads.
There’s no mistaking his pleasure,
These are his strongest treasure.

Long generations has he watched
Father to son to son
Sleeping as babes. But where, he asks
from where, from where have they come?
Families came, families went,
Blossomed and aged, a lifetime spent,
Then- where? That riddle again,
Unanswered in his brain!

Slowly he turns to the barnyard loft,
His fortress his home and rest.
High in the snow, in the fragrant hay
Near to the swallow’s nest.
The nest is empty, but in the Spring
When birds mid leaves and blossoms sing,
The swallow will mark the date,
And come with her tiny mate.

Then will she tales of the journey tell.
Twittering to all who will hear it,
But nary a hint for the question old
That stirs in the Tomte’s spirit.
Now through the cracks in the haymow wall
The moon lights Tomte and hay and all,
Lights his beard through the chinks.
The Tomte ponders and thinks.

Still is the forest and all the land
Locked in this wintry year.
Only the distant waterfall
Whispers and sighs in his ear.
The Tomte listens and, half in a dream,
Thinks that he hears Time’s endless stream,
And wonders, where is it bound?
Where is its source to be found?

Deep in the grip of the midwinter cold,
Stars send a sparkling light.
All are asleep on this lonely farm,
Late in this winter night.
The pale moon is a wanderer,
Snow lies white on pine and fir.
Snow glows on a rooftop shake,
The Tomte alone is awake.