Hidden Histories

The Dwarves of Christmas: A Strange Tradition Rooted in European Folklore

Wednesday, 1/9/13
Topics: Arts and Culture

 

As is demonstrated with the popularity of the present movie The Hobbit and its literary and cinematic successor The Lord of the Rings series, as written by J.R.R. Tolkien, the western world is obsessed once again with dwarves and elves. Tolkien was a distinguished linguistic professor and specialist of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic literature. It is not surprising that the names borne by the dwarves in The Hobbit derive from Scandinavian mythology. Tolkien was indebted for much of this dwarfish lore to the works of a medieval poet and historian named Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Sturluson is the Icelandic author of the famed Prose & Verse Eddas, compilations of Nordic mythology as once believed by the Vikings and their fellow Germanic kinsmen of western and northern Europe.

Though individuals use the terms everyday in the West, too few realize that the names of six of the seven days of the week derive from Nordic folklore, (e.g. Thursday from the god Thor, and Wednesday from the god Votan or Odin), while each of the four cardinal directions have their roots in centuries-old Nordic belief as well. In Viking mythology it was believed that much of the topographical features of the Earth owed their origin to a giant named Ymir whose skull was literally held up at the varied four points of the compass by four dwarves. Their names—Nudri, Sudri, Vestri, and Austri—have been anglicized to the more common north, south, east, and west, respectively.

Clement Clarke Moore, the author of perhaps the most famous Christmas poem to date ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, was no doubt familiar with some of these beliefs. Being a professor of Oriental and Greek Literature at Columbia College (now Columbia University), it is certainly no accident that Santa Claus is described within the poem as a “jolly old elf.” Two of the reindeer bear the Germanic names of Donner (or Donder) and Blitzen, which translate to thunder and lightning in English.

In parts of Denmark and elsewhere in Scandinavia, one hears at Christmas time of the Nissemand or Nissemen who often appear as decorations on trees or are seen in store windows. They are always depicted as being dressed in red with little pointed red caps and white beards usually made of yarn. 

The folk-belief is that it is the Nissemen, not Santa Claus, who bring gifts to the children. Often these individuals are very mischievous in their behavior. The word niss or nisse in German means lousy, nitty, or mean. These Nisse appear to be an alteration of Nils (Saint) Nicholas, who has been described as a “friendly goblin or brownie of Scandinavian folklore that frequents farm buildings.”

There are many tales of sightings of the dwarves dressed in red that range from my own family in Kentucky, to as far north as New York State. The little men dressed in red have become a part of our cultural tradition here in America. Even some Native Americans tribes such as the Cour d’Alenes speak of little people in brown suits with pointed caps, while other tribal members describe them as being red all over and dressed in red.

The dwarves, elves, gnomes, kobolds, and other creatures are with us to stay and add to the enjoyment of the celebration of Christmas throughout the world. They link us to our ancestors and to a rich heritage of mythology and folklore which is too often forgotten in our technological world. The Christmas decorations seen on lawns, in stores and homes attests to the popularity and interest such creatures still have on creativity and imagination.  

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