In England it is a long, well established fact that the person who delivers our presents is a benevolent, if sometimes grumpy old man called Father Christmas. Americans have their jolly pantalooned Santa Claus, and that’s fine (for the purpose of abbreviation). But look further afield the picture becomes much stranger.
In Holland the man in red is called Sinterklass and he has a sidekick called Zwarte Piet who is traditionally played by a blackfaced actor. In France, Father Christmas’s pal is Père Fouettard, a truly horrific child murderer. And Austrians have the delightful Krampus, a maurauding Christmas demon. Like Santa they have sacks, but theirs are empty, ready to be filled with badly behaved children snatched from their beds.
Trolls are deeply ingrained in Scandinavian folklore, so it’s not surprising that they like to poke their sizeable noses into Christmas. But despite their reputation for being fearsome lunks, lurking in the wilder parts of northern Europe, they aren’t always as badly behaved as some of their European counterparts. Tomten, written by Viktor Rydberg in 1881 and turned into prose by Astrid Lindgren in 1961 is a sweet story about the important work of the humble farm troll in winter.
In Trolls, an Unnatural History, John Lindow describes Tomten as ‘workplace spirits, attached to farms, barns and stables… The classic tomte is an irascible old man … about the size of a small boy and dressed in old-fashioned clothing.’ Somebody on Goodreads called them ‘lovely gnomes.’
So while the farmer and his family take refuge from the snow drifts in their cosy cottage, it is up to the Tomten to check on the wellbeing of the farm animals.
He strokes the cows and the horses.
Cosies down with the sheep.
And cuddles up with the hens.
When all that is done he checks on the household, possibly to make sure nobody has been snatched and bagged by a passing Krampus..
But the tomten leaves no presents behind. The message of this book is simple: the most precious gift at this time of year is having someone to watch over you in the darkness. Even if it is a nobbly nosed old man in a tatty bobble hat.