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#SwedishChristmas: How a folklore tomte became Sweden's Santa

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#SwedishChristmas: How a folklore tomte became Sweden's Santa
The creature who went from the floorboards of farmhouses to the embodiment of Swedish Christmas, here painted by Jenny Nyström.
07:59 CET+01:00
Every day until Christmas Eve, The Local explains the unique history behind Swedish Christmas traditions in our own Advent calendar.

Like many iconic storied figures, the Jultomte is the child of centuries of folklore and tradition combined with cherished modern literary and artistic interpretations.

Although often referred to as the Swedish Santa, the archetypal Jultomte is really only nominally a Santa Claus, whose origin story goes back to the 4th century Saint Nicholas. Jultomten, on the other hand, originated as a tomte – an ancient creature akin to a sprite that, according to Scandinavian folklore, lived in the hidden spaces of buildings on family farms and brought both good fortune and mischief to residents and neighbours.

The everyday tomte was transformed into the Swedish Jultomte (Christmas tomte) with the help of Swedish writer Viktor Rydberg in his 1871 short story, Little Vigg's Adventures on Christmas Eve (Lille Viggs äventyr på julafton), and his 1881 poem, Tomten. As Rydberg's writing was shaping the idea of Jultomten as a figure who delivers gifts on Christmas Eve (Julafton), a young Swedish artist named Jenny Nyström became so captivated by the character that she began a lifetime of illustrating it, earning herself the nickname "Tomten's Mother" in the process.


Jenny Nyström in the 1930s. Photo: Pressens Bild

In creating her early illustrations of the Jultomte, which featured in printings of both of Rydberg's works, Nyström drew from a deep well of inspiration and influences. Author Anders Neumuller explained in his 2009 book, God Jul: A Swedish Christmas, that original Jultomte was a combination of "[Saint] Nicholas, the German Christmas man, Snow White's seven dwarfs, [Swedish artist] Kilian Zoll's first Swedish Santa in 1851, and all the other little gnomes".

After illustrating Rydberg's writings, refined her Jultomte into a characteristic figure that graced countless popular books, periodicals, postcards and other printed material in the decades to come. The Kalmar County Museum's online database of her work features hundreds of these published illustrations, including the cover of the first issue of Jultomten – one of the earliest Jultidningar, which were featured in The Local's Christmas calendar earlier this week. These images continue to proliferate in both old and new contexts, appearing on everything from wrapping paper and greeting cards to tablecloths and aprons.


Christmas cards painted by Jenny Nyström.

With the success of Rydberg's writings and Nyström's illustrations, the Jultomte became an increasingly popular figure in Swedish art, literature and popular culture. As many other writers and artists contributed to shaping the appearance and role of the iconic character from the late 19th century onward, Jultomten was embedded into Swedish Christmas, overtaking the Julbock (Christmas goat) as the traditional bearer of gifts on Christmas Eve. Today, nearly 150 years after Viktor Rydberg and Jenny Nyström began dedicating their fertile imaginations to the Jultomte, what they helped to create remains a beloved part of Christmas in Sweden.

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