Tomte = gnome + homestead protector
One description: Originally, the “homestead man” was believed to be the ancestral spirit of the first farmer to have worked a given plot of land. Dwelling around the farm but careful to always remain out of sight, the Tomte is known to be a dutiful, hard worker. He cares for the animals, children and property at the homestead, asking very little in return but respect and the occasional bowl of porridge. At the inkling of disrespect – which can come in the form of foul language or a sudden change in an age-old tradition – he will not hesitate to stir up trouble.
The idea of a tomte has morphed and merged over time with the story of Santa Claus. One of our favorite Swedish holiday songs is "Hej tomtegubbar"-- here's one version sung with by a Swedish choir fully dressed up for Sankta Lucia. Despite the change over time, this is not the original approach of tomtes in myths and legends.
One of the Swedish fairy tales notes how tomtes-- hard to see, shy, reluctant to come out-- serve as the protector of the household, quietly watching out for the household's residents. In that story, one of the residents needed help so lit a fire under the eves-- the tomte came out to save the house from burning down. Perhaps an extreme way of asking for help, but in that story, it worked.
In a time like this where people are housebound, couldn't we all use a tomte to look after us?
|Illustration by John Bauer, from "An Illustrated Treasury of Swedish Folk and Fairy Tales"|