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Introducing...Christmas Tomte

Published: 18 Dec 2006 18:34 GMT+01:00
Updated: 18 Dec 2006 18:34 GMT+01:00

Who is he and why is he famous?

The Christmas Tomte is the Swedish version of Father Christmas, Santa Claus, or whatever you want to call him.

There's a Swedish version?

Yes, and the bearer of gifts in these parts is as much Yule Goat and garden gnome as he is Saint Nicholas.

Yule Goat! Garden gnome! What are you talking about? Have you lost your marbles?

Or as a Swede might ask: do I have tomtes in my loft? But whatever way you put, the answer is no.

Right, explain then.

A tomte is a mythological gnome-like creature found in Nordic folklore. He watched over a farmer's house and barn at night and was usually thought to be an angry, righteous old man of diminutive stature.

A bit like a pint-sized Harold Pinter?

Yes, that's about right. Plus beard.

And the Yule Goat?

Before the Christmas Tomte had made his breakthrough, fathers would dress as Yule Goats and knock on the doors of their middle class homes every Christmas Eve and hand out presents to their children. It's another very old Scandinavian thing.

And when did the Johnny-come-lately Christmas Tomte hit the scene and steal the goat's yuletide thunder?

In the early 1880s. It's all Viktor Rydberg and Jenny Nyström's fault.

Who are they and why did they do it? Why did they kill the goat?

Listen, there was no ritual slaughter or anything like that. Rydberg was a very prominent author and poet in the second half of the 19h century.

I'm thinking Pinter again.

Yeah fine, whatever floats your boat. Anyway, in 1881 Rydberg wrote a poem about a tomte pondering the mysteries of life in mid-winter.

I see, and where does the Nyström woman come in?

Jenny Nyström was an illustrator. A few years earlier, Rydberg had asked her to illustrate one of his Christmas stories. But he didn't care much for the furious little gnome she produced and asked her to soften him up a bit for the Tomte poem.

And did she submit to the whims of her poet friend?

She did. This time her kindly father provided the model and the Christmas Tomte as we know him was born. In no time at all the Yule Goat was out of the picture. The friendly Christmas Tomte, with his red hat and sack of presents, had made the billy goat gruff.

He sounds like a gentle old soul, this Christmas Tomte. I'm losing the Pinter image and thinking more along the lines of Richard Attenborough.

How lovely for you. Anyway, over the years the Christmas Tomte has become more and more like the American version. Incidentally, the man who created the Coca-Cola Santa Claus in the 1930s was called Haddon Sundblom, both of whose parents were Swedish.

Intriguing. And does the Christmas Tomte come charging down the chimney at all hours of the morning?

No, he usually knocks on the door a few minutes after dad has gone out to buy the newspaper on Christmas Eve.

Funny, isn't it? In English-speaking countries if dad 'goes out to get the newspaper'; it probably means he has some floozy waiting for him in the Bahamas and you won't see him again until he has run out of funds, the tart has left him, and he comes looking for his old job back.

Quite. Anyway, the Swedish dad does return, in the form of the Christmas Tomte, and asks: 'Are there any nice children here?'

And are there?

'Yeeeeeesssssss', they all answer. But it's a question of interpretation, isn't it? You can view their affirmative responses with a sort of Pinteresque cynicism or...

Sorry, can I just interrupt to ask you to shut up and stop spoiling Christmas?

Oh, OK.

Paul O'Mahony (paul.omahony@thelocal.se)

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