When I was a kid, I woke up early every Dec. 13 to fulfill my ancestral duties: I stuck a bunch of C-batteries into a light-up plastic wreath, balanced it on my head, and served my sleeping family members breakfast in bed. It sounds like a ruse invented by my parents to trick me into domestic servitude, but it’s also a real thing eldest daughters do in Swedish families to celebrate St. Lucia Day, a solstice ritual celebrating the small flashes of light and sustenance that mark the depths of the long Scandinavian winter. My great-great-grandparents were legit Swedes, born in places like “Billingsfors Bruksförsamling” and named stuff like “Augusta Vilhelmina Magnusson,” but by the time my generation rolled around, my family had been Americans for more than a century, and I connected with my Swedish roots in two ways: styling the hair of my American Girl doll, Kirsten, into 19th-century farm-girl braids; and doing weird stuff at Christmas.
In Ake Daun’s 1989 Swedish Mentality, he describes the prototypical Swedish posture as “shy, reserved, withdrawn, stiff, and in many cases not very interested in approaching someone they do not know.” In other words, really fun at parties—including around Christmastime, when celebrations are a little bit more introverted and cynical than the typical American interpretation of the event. Every Christmas, my family would haul out our plastic tomte, a gnomelike figure who parcels out gifts to local youths at Jul, sometimes with the assistance of a Yule goat. Wind up a gear near tomte’s feet, and he’ll chime out the melody of a traditional Scandinavian Christmas lament, “Nu Ar Det Jul Igen.” It’s not so much about celebrating Christmas as it is about exploring the anticipated disappointment of the holiday season’s inevitable end. The lyrics roughly translate to: “It’s Christmas time again/ It’s Christmas time again/ We’re going to party all the way until Easter/ Oh wait/ We forgot about Lent.”
The tomte figure is perhaps the most Swedish element of the Swedish Christmas tradition. In contrast to Santa’s extroverted bluster, the tomte is an impish loner who often wears his pointy red cap pulled down over his eyes and hangs out with feral cats (both creatures are persnickety, aloof, and roughly the same size.) Santa commands a North Pole workshop buzzing with elves and light-up reindeer, but the tomte resides locally, carving out a corner in the outbuildings of a family’s farm or settling into a warm hole beneath the house’s floorboards. In 2013, the Swedish-American entrepreneur Elisabeth Hubbard compared various paintings and staged photographs of Santa and tomte and noted that while Santa always “looks straight into the camera, happily smiling and waving,” the tomte is “rarely aware that he is being portrayed,” or is “perhaps just not interested in interacting with the viewer.” Santa is a guy who voluntarily posts up at the mall for several weeks a year, beckoning kids to bounce on his lap and talk about the products they feel they deserve. Tomten, as one Minnesota columnist put it in 2011, must be “fooled into appearing” in public.
In my adulthood, I got more curious about the details of the tomte mystique, and read up on some Scandinavian folktales to get the full story. I learned that though Santa may be a narcissistic glutton, tomten have an even more dastardly combination of traits: They are easily offended and possess superhuman strength. According to the Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology, the tomte is “proud and sensitive by nature” and “very helpful when it is treated with respect.” A respected tomte carries sacks of flour, tidies the barn, etc. A disrespected tomte sabotages your harvest, sickens your livestock, and steals your tools. Consider how this plays out during the traditional Christmas snack offering: Santa likes a plate of cookies and a glass of milk, while the tomte prefers a bowl of porridge with a pat of butter, but their differences are more than just a matter of taste. The conventional wisdom surrounding the presentation of cookies to Santa is that if an offering is forgotten, Santa might leave a lump of coal in a child’s stocking instead of a Rainbow Loom or whatever. Fail to deliver tomte’s porridge and he’ll murder you.
In one tale collected in the 1978 book Swedish Legends and Folktales, a farm girl tasked with preparing the traditional Christmas offering instead eats the porridge herself and is “danced to death by the mockingly singing tomte.” In another version, retold in the 1988 collection Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend, a blacksmith eats the porridge and shits in the bowl. This time, instead of just killing the guy immediately in a fit of rage, the tomte lies in wait for a full three days until the blacksmith fires up his oven, at which point the tomte pounces, pushes him in the fire, and systematically feeds his body to the flames “bit by bit,” until all that remains of him is two severed feet stuffed inside wooden clogs.
Santa and tomte, it’s safe to say, have differing philosophies on how best to exert their authority. Santa collects evidence of naughtiness and niceness over the course of the year, then checks the list twice before administering justice. The tomte acts capriciously, often punishing the closest human being for events that lie outside of anyone’s control. In Ulf Stark’s illustrated children’s book, The Yule Tomte and the Little Rabbits, “Grump the Yule Tomte” refuses to deliver gifts on Christmas because the wind blows his mittens away. (What was he supposed to do, borrow somebody else’s mittens?) In another variation on the porridge tale, the tomte receives his Christmas porridge and, angered by the absence of the traditional butter pat on top, he kills the best cow on the farm, eats the porridge anyway, realizes the butter had been placed at the bottom of the bowl, and—weeping with regret—decides to cover for his error by dragging the dead cow’s carcass to a neighboring farm and stealing their best cow to replace the slaughtered one.
Anyway, Merry Christmas! Or as they say in Sweden, God Jul. In Scandinavia, the tomte figure acts more and more like St. Nick with each passing century, but if I ever have kids, I’m going to make sure they’re introduced to the tomte’s weird, capricious side (though I may fudge the ritualistic homicide part until they’re older). Santa is a boring fantasy figure who tells everyone how great they are and buys them stuff. Only the tomte can help children understand why their relatives are so socially awkward, why life isn’t always fair, and what the hell happened to their favorite cow. Oh, and they’re definitely making me breakfast, too.