Officially it’s still autumn, but last night we already had the first frost, and the days are noticeably shorter now, even so it’s 7 more weeks till midwinter.
I’m no autumn and winter person. I love light and warmth and dread darkness and cold. Thank goodness for the invention of electricity and central heating.
Winter in the olden days in my part of the world must have been hard to get through. Just imagine to see the days get shorter and colder and not knowing why it is that way. Will the light ever come back? Will it ever be warm again? Or will the lakes and rivers and the sea be frozen and the ground be covered by snow for eternity?
For us Scandinavians light has always plaid a major role. We celebrate midsummer because it’s the longest day and the shortest night, and long before we officially became Christians and many centuries after, we celebrated the return of the light around December 24th.
Being Christians because our king said so did in fact not really change our belief. At least not right away. The belief in the Nordic gods at least coexisted with the belief in Christ for a long time, and next to the mythological gods like Odin and Thor people also had other gods, house gods called nisser, which plaid a big role in peoples day to day life.
It was very important to be on good terms with ones nisse, who was seen as a mixture of a tiny person and a spirit, because if ones nisse wasn’t happy, he could make all sorts of disasters happen. He could kill your only cow or child, give you a bad harvest or burn your house down to the ground. If you treated him well on the other hand, he could protect you from harm. Unfortunately things were not always that easy, and ones nisse could decide to be naughty and teach you a lesson, even so you treated him well.
Findings from excavations have shown that people made their own nisser from wood and kept them where it was warm, next to a fireplace, and covered them in butter to keep them happy.
Over time the mythological Nordic gods were more or less forgotten, but the nisse kept its ground over the centuries.
The church has probably always celebrated the birth of Christ, but Christmas parties as we know them are a rather new invention. The very first Christmas tree in Denmark was lit in 1808, but it wasn’t before after World War 1 that Christmas trees and Christmas parties became common, and by then there still were many, who couldn’t afford either tree or party.
Later people became more enlightened and learned that the cow did not die from magic, but maybe from disease or malnutrition or old age, and that the house burned, not because the nisse made it, but because some embers flew from the fireplace onto a rug, and little by little the nisser lost their power over people.
Instead they transformed into some naughty, magical tiny people, who are the helpers of Santa Claus or julemanden, as we call him, and who live and breathe for Christmas. Today we talk about them in December, and from the 1rst to the 24th they are everywhere, before they return to wherever they came from and after that they are not heard nor seen from until December 1rst the following year.