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The Yule Tomte: A Memory of Ancestor Veneration

Christmas time is nearing, which means people will soon start to bring out their holidays decorations. In Sweden, one figure will be making his yearly comeback: the jultomte, or Yule tomte.

This tiny man with a big white beard and a pointy hat is a beloved figure in Scandinavian folklore. In modern times, we mostly think of him in Yule times. But for many centuries, it was believed that every farm had its own hustomte (house tomte) who would aid the people, or hinder them if he felt dis­satisfied.

The hustomte is said to care particularly about the farm’s horses

Things that could bring the hustomte’s ire on you was if you were lazy, mistreated the animals or neglected to leave gifts out for him. The hustomte, also called husvätte (house vættr), was namely often believed to be the spirit of the first owner, who would stick around long after his bodily death to make sure his beloved farm was still running smoothly. The name tomte actually comes from the word tomt, which designates a plot of inhabited land. Belief in the hustomte is for these reasons likely a remnant of the ancestor veneration that was common in Pagan times.

How the tomte is depicted has changed a lot over the centuries. Here is an illustration from the Carta Marina (1539)

The Church tried to get rid of the practice of honouring the house vættir. Birgitta Birgersdotter, known in the Catholic Church as Saint Birgitta, famously had visions of tomtar and warned against their worship. But the tradition lived on for centuries. Today, many Swedish households still continue a particular custom of leaving out a bowl of rice porridge for the hustomte on Christmas Eve. It is said that he particularly loves it with a generous piece of butter on top.

My favourite illustration of a Yule tomte

I’ve always loved images of tomtar but until recently, I had no idea about their connection with the remembrance and veneration of the ancestors. So this year, when my favourite little decorative tomte comes back for the holidays, he will have a special place on the altar and when I see him I will remember the ancestors.

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