What’s a nisse?
feat. Hanne, my host mom & resident nisse expert
This weekend, I interviewed my host mom, Hanne, about little Danish Christmas creatures named nisser. Nisser dolls have since invaded every shop and street corner in Copenhagen. Nisser are very cute and very Danish. I wanted to know more, and my lovely host mom agreed to help me out. Below, I have transcribed the interview. Enjoy!
Katherine: Hej Hanne! Ready to go?
Hanne: Yes I am ready!
Katherine: What’s a nisse?
Hanne: Well, nowadays, nisser are our Christmas helpers. They are the ones who prepare and decorate our houses. In the old days, [the nisse, a three foot tall elf like creature,] used to be the protector of the farm. You had to treat him well, and he would make sure that everything was alright. We still have a saying that if you move the nisse will move with you so you can’t flee from your problems too.
Katherine: I’ve heard that there’s a tradition involving rice porridge and nisser. What’s the story there?
Hanne: I think that it must have been somewhere between the old days and today. You put rice porridge with butter and cinnamon for the nisser at the door of the attic. A parent would sneak up there and remove it eat it. Then the children would come and say “oh the nisse has been here!” But we don’t really do that kind of thing in our house. We have songs about the nisse eating his rice pudding too.
Me: Have you ever left rice porridge at the attic?
Hanne: No, but when I was a kid, I slept under the desk waiting for nisse to bring the Christmas gifts but I fell asleep unfortunately. In Denmark, the nisse comes with the Christmas gifts but they are still from parents or friends. So I don’t really get why the nisse brings them haha.
Me: So santa and the nisse are not the same thing?
Hanne: No they are not the same thing not in our tradition at least sometimes they are seen as santas helper.
Me: Does our house have a nisse?
Hanne: I don’t think so. Not in the traditional way. It has a ton of nisser decorations as you can see. You are very fond of names but nisser are just like creatures they don’t come with specific names at least in our traditions so you can name whatever nisser you want to!***
Me: Ah great! That’s good to hear.
Hanne: That’s for later haha!
Me: Yes for sure. Ok next question, Is the nisse only around during Christmastime?
Hanne: Nowadays, they are only here around Christmas but in the olden days they would be around in the house all the time. They can sometimes create mischief but they can also be very sweet.
Me: What is the special nisse tradition that you do with your mom?
Hanne: Those are the calendar counting down to Christmas that we usually do with little kids. They get a gift everyday until Christmas, and we do it with my mom. I guess that tradition is pretty normal but our tradition is to decorate her house with presents for each day of December leading up to Christmas. Which we will do very shortly. In twenty minutes, we will leave, Siiri and I, to be nisser and to decorate her house.
Siiri hears her name and looks up smiling.
Hanne: Yes you! And the whole thing is a little naughty since we will have things hanging places where it’s annoying. She will have to move them and bump into them as she moves around the house. We used to tape one her landline so every time she picked up her phone it would make a mess.
Me: Are there any other fun Danish Christmas traditions that we should know about?
Hanne: Yes, we tend to see Christmas as an all month kind of thing. So, as a grown up, you would technically know about all the Julefrokost [Christmas lunches] which would technically not are lunches they are usually dinners with a lot of drinking. Eating aebleskewer and gløgg is also one. Dancing around the Christmas tree too. And also cutting paper hearts like those you can see in the window! We can do that later.
Me: I can’t wait! Ok that’s just about it. Thank you so much!
***She’s referring to the fact that I named the house’s five orchids after characters from Harry Potter: Luna, Hermione, Neville, Dobby, and Hagrid. When my American friends came over for Thanksgiving, Hanne asked them if all Americans named their plants. She learned then that it was not an American thing – just a Katherine thing.