The First Jultomte
Did you know? In Sweden the Christmas fairy helps Santa give out gifts on Christmas Day. On that day, the children of Sweden call the fairy, Jultomte, for it is the Yule season, and “tomte” is the Swedish word for the house fairy who protects children from harm.
In Sweden, the tomte is special. You see, he lives quietly in the house all year. He hides in the attic or under the stairs and, so, is never seen by the adults. Were he seen by the wife of the house, she might mistake him for a bird or a mouse and shoo him out. Being small and practically invisible, the tomte can protect the children of the house from spiders and snakes and other evil and mischief. And for this reason, and because of the gifts he gives on Christmas Day, the children of the house serve him warm milk and porridge on Christmas Eve.
You ask, how did the first tomte come to live in a house?
Let me tell you.
In Sweden, it was not always the custom to cut down evergreen trees and decorate them. Some say it was the Germans who began the custom in the fourteenth century to celebrate the birth of Christ. That is true, but the Vikings were bringing green boughs into their home long before this.
Before Christianity came to Scandinavia, the fierce Vikings roamed the seas in long boats terrorizing the civilized world. During the long, cold, cloudy winters, when no plundering was possible, the Vikings cut boughs from evergreen trees to remind themselves that spring would come again.
A tall Viking named Claus lived along the northwestern coast with his family of ten children and four grandparents. With so many children and grandparents, he built an extra room to handle the many beds that the family needed.
It was a few days after the Winter Solstice, and the skies were dark and cloudy. Claus decided it was time to go into the forest and gather boughs of evergreen. Putting on his warmest caribou coat and ermine hat, he grabbed his axe and took the sled from the wall where it hung. When Claus got to the front door, the littlest child in the house, Tom, asked to go.
Off Claus and Tom went into the snow. At the edge of the forest they found that the trees were small and thin for the boughs had already been shorn. Deep into the forest they went where, my friends, the fairies of the forest live. These fairies, being quite small and very shy, stay away from humans. A human is quite large to a fairy and a Viking must seem like a giant.
Claus and Tom traveled far into the forest where all trees were tall, the trunks straight and the boughs dense and green. Spotting the first tree, Tom was ready to cut boughs, but his father told him to be patient. Tom raced from tree to tree, saying, “this one”, but still his father waited. Then, Tom saw the biggest and most beautiful tree he had ever seen. The boughs were as long as the table the family of ten children, two parents, and four grandparents ate on.
“This is the one, papa!” he said, and his father agreed. But as Claus came toward the tree with his axe, Tom saw deep within the tree a small face and two eyes frightened by terror at the sight of a giant coming at him with an axe. The face behind the eyes was like that of a small boy, or so it seemed to Tom. And Tom thought that he had found a playmate. Tom smiled at the pair of eyes and winked, and the fairy winked back.
Then Tom said to his father, “Do not cut the boughs. Let us take the whole tree, for it is so lovely.”
Claus, being a practical man said, “In the spring I will use the tall trunk of the tree as a mast on my longboat.”
Tom and the fairy became the best of friends. Now and then, bits of food disappeared from the dinner table, for Tom did not always like what was prepared for him and fairies, after all, must eat too. This, my friends, is how the first fairy came to live in a house, but that is not the end of the story of the Jultomte.
When Christianity came to Sweden in the eleventh century, the Vikings ceased their raids on foreign lands and quietly settled down to a life of farming, but chopping down a tree was now a tradition that father and son did each year.
On Christmas Eve, the Swedish family would decorate the tree with candles, and baubles, and ornaments made of straw and corn husks. The tomte, who had come with the very first tree, was now a very old man. Though old, he was no bigger or taller than a titmouse, possessing a long white beard and a wizened face. The tomte is excited by the arrival of the tree. Unseen he jumps within the brightly decorated boughs remembering for the moment the forest and long ago. The very smallest children who hang the ornaments see the tomte within the trees and they wink at each other.
So it is that the children of the house leave warm milk and porridge out Christmas Eve for the tomte, and the tomte, in exchange, leaves gifts on Christmas Day. And when the children of the house grow up and leave the home, or, God forbid, if the children are ungrateful and leave nothing for the tomte on Christmas Eve, then the tomte returns to the forest and waits for another family.
This is how the Jultomte of Sweden came to be.