The Gnomes’ Christmas Night – An old Swedish Christmas song called “Tomtarnas Julnatt”

Leif Stensson from Project Runeberg wrote me about an old tradition in Sweden relating to Gnomes. He also sent me the song The Gnomes’ Christmas Night in Swedish and with an English translation …

Here is a children’s song and Christmas song which draws on the old folk superstition about “tomtar” (singular “tomte”), a kind of tiny, benevolent elf or gnome that liked to take up residence near or under houses that were close to a forest, and tended to be occasionally useful to the inhabitants of the house if they treated it well. Typically, they would help lost sheep find their way home, and the like. Tomtar presumably lived off nuts and berries, but in the winter when these were hard to find, it was customary to set out a bowl of porridge outside the front door late in the evening, so that the local tomte had something to eat. Especially around Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, it was customary in remote farms to set the dining table for a feast, and leave it overnight. The local tomte as well as ones from neighbouring houses and from the forest would then sneak in and eat whatever they wanted during the night, and then the people of the house would eat the next day. This song is about a gang of tomtar visiting on a Christmas night. Every verse ends with the nonsense sequence “tipp, tapp, tipp, tapp, tippetippetipp tapp! Tipp, tipp, tapp”, the sound of small feet tiptoeing around. I’ve left it out of the text below.

The Gnomes’ Christmas Night
(English)

Midnight reigns,
it’s quiet in the houses,
quiet in the houses.
Everyone sleeps,
the candles are put out,
candles put out.

Look, there comes
the gnomes out from the corners,
from the corners,
list’ning, watching,
sneaking on their toes,
on their toes.

The nice people
have left the sweet food,
the sweet food,
on the table
for a band of gnomes,
band of gnomes.

How they frolic,
skipping between dishes,
between dishes,
whisper, murmur¹
“It’s good, the Christmas food,
Christmas food.”

Porridge, ham,
the little piece of apple,
piece of apple,
ah how sweet
it tastes for little Gnomie²,
little Gnomie².

Now the games!³
Happy laughter sounding,
laughter sounding,
’round the tree³
the gang merrily swings,
merrily swings.

Night is ending.
Soon the friendly gnomes,
friendly gnomes,
quickly, neatly,
putting all in order,
all in order.

Then, back
into the quiet corners,
quiet corners,
the gang of gnomes
sneak on their toes,
on their toes.

Here’s the original Swedish song…

Tomtarnas Julnatt
(Swedish)

Midnatt råder,
tyst det är i husen,
tyst i husen.
Alla sover,
släckta äro ljusen,
äro ljusen.

Se, då krypa
tomtar upp ur vrårna
upp ur vrårna,
lyssna, speja,
trippa fram på tårna,
fram på tårna.

Snälla folket
låtit maten rara,
maten rara,
stå på bordet
åt en tomteskara,
tomteskara.

Hur de mysa,
hoppa upp bland faten,
upp bland faten,
tissla, tassla¹,
“God är julematen,
julematen!”

Gröt och skinka,
lilla äppelbiten,
äppelbiten,
tänk så rart
det smakar Nisse² liten,
Nisse² liten.

Nu till lekar!³
Glada skratten klingar,
skratten klingar,
runt om granen³
skaran muntert svingar,
muntert svingar.

Natten lider.
Snart de tomtar snälla,
tomtar snälla,
kvick och näpet
allt i ordning ställa,
ordning ställa.

Sedan åter
in i tysta vrårna,
tysta vrårna,
tomteskaran
tassar lätt på tårna,
lätt på tårna.

¹ The Swedish words “tissla” and “tassla” are not exactly real words, but rather both onomatopoetic slang for whisper, murmur, with a suggestion of secrecy, connivance, urgency, or delight.

² “Nisse” is the standard nickname for someone whose name is “Nils”, but also a variation on “tomte”. (The word “nisse”, however, was also used for a faerytale creature similar to the “tomte”, but who was not necessarily benevolent. Perhaps somewhat like the Irish-style leprechaun.) In this instance, “Nisse” is used as a substitute for the nisse’s real name, which is not known. Names were magical in the old superstition, and supernatural creatures in particular were generally unwilling to reveal their real names. In the case of this song, it is hard to say if “Nisse” is used deliberately in keeping with this superstition, or just happened to be the writer’s convenient way of naming a nisse. “Gnomie” is a mediocre compromise between these possibilities.

³ In cases when the room was large enough to allow it, dancing in a circle around the Christmas tree, singing songs like this one, was a traditional Christmas game for children. In more modern tradition, this practice still lives at larger Christmas parties for children, typically in elementary schools, the little leagues of various sports, etc, after eating but before distributing presents.

I’m grateful to Leif Stensson for sending me Tomtarnas Julnatt – The Gnomes’ Christmas Night with such interesting commentary. Tack så mycket!

Project Runeberg is an open, voluntary project whose purpose is to make classic Nordic literature and art available in electronic form to the public, free of charge.

Come visit the Mama Lisa’s World Sweden Page for more Swedish Songs.

This article was posted on Thursday, December 8th, 2005 at 1:13 pm and is filed under Children's Songs, Christmas, Christmas Songs, Countries & Cultures, Holiday Songs, Holidays Around the World, Languages, Songs by Theme, Sweden, Swedish, Swedish Children's Songs, The Gnomes' Christmas Night - Tomtarnas Julnatt, Tomtarnas Julnatt - The Gnomes' Christmas Night. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

8 Responses to “The Gnomes’ Christmas Night – An old Swedish Christmas song called “Tomtarnas Julnatt””

  1. Lisa Says:

    I spoke with a Swedish au pair who told me that Christmas is celebrated in Sweden on December 24th. She said that gnomes are one of the images you see in Sweden in December. A popular food they eat on the 24th is Swedish Meatballs!

    There’s a midi of Tomtarnas Julnatt at http://angerweit.tikon.ch/lieder/lied.php?src=folk-skan/tomtarna

  2. Monique Says:

    It reminds me of “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils Holgersson” that I would recommend the children to read from let’s say 4th-5th grade as it’s pretty big. I used to read a couple of pages every morning to my 1st graders long ago and they enjoyed it.

  3. Lisa Says:

    I just found “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils Holgersson” online at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/lagerlof/nils/nils.html for anyone who would like to read it in English.

  4. Jana Says:

    Wow, I love hearing about how other countries celebrate the holidays! I put a link to this post on my blog, I hope that’s okay!

  5. Anna Says:

    Gnome huh? Tomte was always one of the words in Swedish that I had most trouble translating into english, as their—as well as other mythical creatures’—definition isn’t always clearly defined.

    Nisse is by the way also what you call santa’s little elves. Santa Claus=Jul(christmas)tomten; Santa’s elves=tomtenissar.

    People will usually refer to this song as only “midnatt råder” (the first line in it) and it was the only name I knew for it, anyway.

  6. cady Says:

    whats the tune? the melody? what?

  7. Lisa Says:

    Here you can hear the tune to Tomtarnas Julnatt – you can hear it sung…

  8. Lisa Says:

    Monique from France wrote:

    Now that I’ve heard it sung, I realized there’s a French song to this tune and I found it…
    http://archives.ecolebercy.free.fr/html/fenetre_chant83.htm

    French Lyrics…
    http://www.ec-gagarine-ste-genevieve.ac-versailles.fr/spip/IMG/pdf/Minuit_sonne_web.pdf

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