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, Coca Cola sponsored Santa Claus. But look further, into the darker reaches of the northern European imagination and the picture becomes much stranger.
In Holland the man in red is called Sinterklass and he has a sidekick called Zwarte Piet who, when seen out in public, is traditionally played by an actor in blackface. In France, Father Christmas’s pal is Père Fouettard (Father Whipper), a truly horrific child murderer and cannibal. And Austrians have the delightful Krampus, a marauding 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 no surprise to see them poke their sizeable noses into Christmas. But despite their reputation for being fearsome lunks 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.’
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.
If you’d like to hear about some other unusual Christmas characters from around the world including Iceland’s Yule lads and caganer, the cheeky Catalan defecator, I’ve written about them in issue 25 of Scoop magazine – available here.