SHARE
COPY LINK

CHRISTMAS

Swedish word of the day: jultomte

Here's the next word in The Local's Christmas-themed word of the day series, running from December 1st to Christmas Eve.

the word jultomte on a black background beside a swedish flag
Do you believe in the jultomte? Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, Swedish-learners were wondering, ‘where does the word jultomte come from, anyway?’

In Sweden, it’s the jultomte who is the traditional bringer of gifts on Christmas Eve (not Christmas Day). You can read more about how this mythological figure forged a firm place in Swedish festive folklore here (Members only), but if you’re curious about the linguistic history of the jultomte, read on.

The word tomte comes from the term en tomt (a plot of land). In fact, these words are both written the same way in the definite form, so tomten can mean either ‘the gnome’ or ‘the plot of land’ depending on how you stress the two syllables – and on context, of course.

In Nordic folklore, each tomt had a small gnome-like creature to look after the area and use its special powers to ensure good luck for those who lived there, and this creature was called a tomte. According to some traditions, the tomte was the spirit of the very first owner of the plot of farmland, and they were generally described as resembling an elderly human man, usually with a long white beard, but smaller than a person.

You need to watch out for the tomte though, as they are believed to have a short fuse and can be vindictive, so farmers would often leave out porridge for the creature around Christmas, in order to pacify them.

And tomte is also used in several different ways in Swedish. You might jokily refer to someone with a long beard, or who performs many different practical tasks, as a tomte, and the phrase ha tomtar på loftet (to have tomtar in the attic) means to be slightly crazy.

Around Christmas time, the traditional figure of the tomte has become slightly conflated with the Father Christmas or Santa Claus of other countries to become the jultomte (Christmas tomte) who brings presents to well-behaved children. And in homes and shops across the country you’ll find small toys and models depicting the festive bearded tomte. This popularization happened thanks to a series of poems and stories, described in more detail here.

Example sentences:

Tror du på jultomten?

Do you believe in Santa?

Jultomten är en sammanblandning av Sankt Nikolaus, Santa Claus och julbocken

The Swedish jultomte is a mix of St Nicholas, Santa Claus and the Christmas goat

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it – or join The Local as a member and get your copy for free.

It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

SWEDISH WORD OF THE DAY

Swedish word of the day: skärgård

You don't have to spend long in Sweden to hear the word skärgård, especially if you live in cities like Stockholm or Gothenburg where the population relocate to the nearby skärgård every summer. Where does the word come from?

Swedish word of the day: skärgård

Skärgård is, like many Swedish words, a compound word made up of the word skär, describing a small rocky outcrop and gård, which has a number of meanings such as “courtyard”, “farm” or “garden”.

Although skärgård is often translated to English as “archipelago” – a group of islands – the word officially refers to an archipelago made up primarily of small islands, close to the coast of a larger island or landmass, such as the rocky archipelagos near Stockholm and Gothenburg.

Other kinds of archipelago – such as those which are not close to other landmasses, or those made up of larger islands – can be referred to as an arkipelag or ögrupp. However, many Swedes will just use skärgård for any kind of archipelago.

Although the word skärgård doesn’t exist in English, a variant of skär has made its way into the language. The English term for this type of small rocky outcrop is “skerry”.

Skerry has an interesting etymology in English – it comes from the Old Norse term sker, which refers to a rock in the sea. This is related to the Swedish word skära, meaning “cut” – a skerry is a rock cut off from land.

Sker came into English via Scots, where it is spelled skerry or skerrie. Other languages also have this word, such as Norwegian skjær/skjer, Estonian skäär, Finnish kari and Russian шхеры (shkhery). It can also be found in Scottish Gaelic sgeir, Irish sceir and Welsh sgeri.

This also reflects the geographic area where skerries are found – there are skerries or skärgårdar along the northernmost part of the Swedish west coast near Bohuslän and Gothenburg, as well as on the east coast near Stockholm. The Norwegian coast also has a large number of skerries, and Skärgårdshavet or “the Archipelago Sea” lies off the southwestern coast of Finland.

In Russia, the Minina Skerries (Shkhery Minina) are one example of a skärgård, and in Scotland, Skerryvore and Dubh Artach in the Hebrides are also made up of skerries. Northern Ireland is home to The Skerries, off the Antrim coast, and Skerries is also the name of a coastal area of Dublin in the Republic of Ireland.

You may be wondering if the surname of the famous Swedish Skarsgård family of actors – Stellan, Gustaf, Bill, Valter and Alexander Skarsgård, among others – comes from the word skärgård. Although the spelling is similar, this name actually comes from the town of Skärlöv on the island of Öland, and means “Skar’s farm” (Skares gård, in Swedish).

Example sentences

Jag ser redan fram emot sommarsemestern – vi har hyrt en stuga ute i Stockholms skärgård.

I’m already looking forwards to summer – we’ve rented a cottage out in the Stockholm archipelago.

Sverige har många skärgårdar, fast Skärgårdshavet vid Finlands västkust är störst i världen med över 50 000 öar och skär.

Sweden has a lot of archipelagos, but the Archipelago Sea off Finland’s west coast is the biggest in the world has over 50,000 islands and skerries.

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon USAmazon UKBokus or Adlibris.

SHOW COMMENTS