The Christmas season is a time for faith and magic; a time for showing kindness and gratitude. In Sweden, there is a special type of magic unique to Scandinavia. Already famous for its trolls, Sweden also has a legendary little bearded man who lives in the hay loft, and secretly looks after the farmstead at night.
The legend of Tomten is captured in the classic poem by 19th century Swedish writer Victor Rydberg. Astrid Lindgren, author of the enchanting children’s tales of Pippi Longstocking (Pippi Långstrump) and The Brothers Lionheart (Bröderna Lejonhjärta), later adapted Rydberg’s Tomten into a fanciful and charmingly illustrated story book.
As the narrative progresses through a cold and snowy winter’s night, we see Tomten carefully make his way from his hidden corner in the hayloft to every structure on the farm to check on all the livestock, ascertaining that everything is in order. At last, he peeps in on the children, asleep in their beds. No one has ever seen Tomten, yet the children will see his tiny footprints in the snow when morning comes.
The tomten has always been at the farm, for generation after generation, but only the animals ever see him. He comes out just at night, when all the people are asleep. For as long as people live at this lonely old farm, Tomten will perform his nightly duties.
The animals are his friends and he speaks to them in a silent language that they can understand. He gives the hens a bit of corn in exchange for an egg. He fetches extra straw to make the doghouse more comfortable for his friend Karo. He welcomes the cat’s company in the hay loft, and gives her milk from the cows.
Tomte is a pensive little fellow, pondering the passage of time. “Winters come and winters go,” he assures the cows and horses, as they dream of summer pastures. He would like to communicate with the children, too, because they would also understand his silent language, but alas, children sleep at night.
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 dream,
Thinks that he hears Time’s endless stream,
And wonders, where is it bound?
Where is its source to be found?Translated from Victor Rydberg’s Tomten 1881
As the legend goes, a tomte is linked with the original owner of the farm, thought to be a manifestation of his spirit. He is understood to be a guardian figure, who has mighty power despite his small stature. Jealous neighbors of a prospering farmer might accuse him of harboring a tomte.
A tomte is a traditionalist, and can easily be offended by modernizations or other changes in the farm. Likewise, he will not tolerate poor behavior, such as rudeness, cursing, or the abuse of his animal friends. Once offended, he may take himself off and never return.
To keep a tomte happy, one must be good, and be kind. On Christmas, he especially appreciates his favorite meal of porridge topped with butter. Treated well, the Tomte may bring good fortune to the farm and family.
Most Swedish homes have one or several tomte figures about the house. For a touch of Swedish tradition, try adding a Tomte to your Christmas decor.
Make your own tomte
With a strip of faux fur and felt, and some odd bits of wood, you can easily make small tomte gifts or ornaments.
For this simple craft, you will need:
- 2-4 inch section of natural wood or dowel
- Felt triangle for the hat (red, green, or gray)
- Faux fur for the beard (white)
- Wooden bead for the nose
- Stuffing material or foam for inside the hat
- Hot glue gun
- Thin needle and thread to match hat
- Shape your felt triangle into a hat that will fit loosely over the top end of the wood. Pin one edge overlapping the other and straight stitch up the back side, gathering the tip into a point at the top.
- Gently stuff the hat, or hot glue a shaped piece of foam to the top of the wood.
- Cut a triangular piece of faux fur big enough for a long beard.
- Hot glue the beard ¼ inch from the top surface of the wood
- Hot glue a nose in the top center of the beard. If you are using beads, face the holes up and down unless you want him to have nostrils.
- Fit the hat onto the bearded tomten, and hot glue to the nose first, covering the top-facing hole in the bead.
- Secure the hat over the beard and around the back with hot glue, so that it fits snug and looks like it’s falling over his eyes.
Although tomtes are traditionally solitary souls, once you have the materials it’s easy to make a whole mess of them and they can have a jolly convention!