Who says Christmas has to be this happy time, where everybody revels in candles, presents, and family comfort, and where you might meet a jolly Father Christmas accompanied by a helpful elf in every department store and kindergarten across the land. Looking at the little elf – or nisse is Danish – in the picture above, not everybody is so contented with their lot this time of year.
It might surprise you to hear that this nisse actually comes from Bali. But aside from his angry scowl, he looks just like any other nisse we have become familiar with. I tend to think, though, that his evident tempestuous temperament makes him more true to the original folktales about nisser than the sugar-coated image of the friendly helper, who makes toys in Santa’s workshop that we know from films and cartoons today.
Because in Scandinavian folklore nisser were both capable of protecting and causing harm. They were ancestor spirits who lived in attics or barns, and, if treated with the proper respect (and to generous amounts of food), they would act as guardians of the house. But they were also quick to take offence and once angered, they would play tricks upon the family, or even maim or kill livestock.
A far cry from the sweet and harmless creatures of modern pop culture.
So, Merry Christmas from all of us here at ethnographica! And remember to put a bowl of rice porridge out tonight – you don’t want to tempt fate, do you? I certainly feel inclined to make sure that our little Balinese friend is well fed. We wouldn’t want him to start playing tricks on us, when we are working alone among the shelves in the museum’s storage facilities…
…and if you think the tradition of putting out food for the nisse in the attic is only for a few, living on farmsteads in the country, here is a video of the Danish Queen, Margrethe II, making sure that the royal nisser are well fed: