Tomten tales

Mom asked me today if I remember the tomte’s name. No, I don’t think I knew the tomte has a name. But I’m intrigued by the question.

Back up for a bit. We have a tomte (“house elf”). Of course we do. Our ancestors came from Sweden. Honestly, if I didn’t have one I’m not sure I’d admit it.

A tomte is a guardian of the house, like the lares and penates in Roman culture except he’s an elf not a spirit. He lives somewhere nearby, maybe in a hill or a under the barn, He protects the house and the people who live there. And, he brings luck and makes the chores lighter.

When I was a kid, I had a zillion questions. Where did he come from? (From Sweden, of course.) When? (With Grandma Josephine and Grandpa Adolph.) How did he get here? (He came in their steamer trunk.) How come we got him and our relatives didn’t? (Ahh, but they did get him We all got him.)

That last bit has to remain one of life’s mysteries. I have a tomte, and he’s the same tomte my great grandparents brought from Sweden in 1891, and all my relatives have him too, but somehow we all have our own.

After all these years, my American tomte is certainly different than he was in Sweden. I know some of those differences but probably not all.

Tomtar like to have a cheerful, hardworking environment. They don’t like arguments. They don’t like sloppy housekeeping. And, they don’t like change. That part is the same.

It’s traditional to put out a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve, but I put out a saucer of milk like my mother did. And I don’t usually do it on Christmas Eve. More often at New Year’s Eve and Midsummer, or when I think something has happened to disturb our happy home.

Another difference — in Sweden, the tomte is sometimes said to have been the first person who cleared the land, or the person who built the house, or the first person who died in the house. That wouldn’t work in America, I don’t think. The poor tomtar would get attention only when there were good Swedes living in the house, then be ignored other times. If that’s the rule, then it’s pretty harsh.

And one last difference. I get the impression from my reading that the Swedish tomtar are essentially the local landvættir (“land spirits”), but I see my tomte as more an ancestral spirit, even though still definitely one of the húsvættir. It’s part of his job to coordinate with the land spirits. Particularly since I’m moving around and the local land spirits, whether Indian or American, are not often any part of my own family heritage.

So, getting back the question of his name. Maybe it’s Lars? Or Lasse? The Danes and Norwegian call their house elves nisse. Some people think the word nisse comes from Nils). If so, it seems certain the Swedes would be obstinately different. I think I’m going to start calling my tomte Lasse and see if he responds.

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