Thursday, 3 December 2015

An Old-Fashioned Christmas Eve

For your pleasure on this pre-Christmas #FolkloreThursday, and as my Christmas gift to all who contribute — by writing and by reading — I give you my translation of Peter Christen Asbjørnsen's “An Old-Fashioned Christmas Eve”.

Free .pdf (with pictures)
Free .pdf (with pictures)

Free .epub (without pictures)
Free .epub (without pictures)

A Note from the Translator

“An Old-Fashioned Christmas Eve” was published in 1845, in the first volume of Peter Christen Asbjørnsen’s Norwegian Hulder Tales and Folk Legends. Asbjørnsen had previously collected folktales from rural Norway, and published a collection of these together with those of the like-minded Jørgen Moe, in 1841. The volume of tales he had collected, however, gave him material for further publications. He determined that he should nest a number of shorter tales that he had collected into narrative frames of his own composition, to give examples of the kinds of contexts in which people used to tell each other tales, and thus communicate folklore to each other.

Asbjørnsen’s frame narratives contain elements of more or less credible autobiography. In “The Legends from the Mill,” for example, the narrator hikes around Maridal water, casually fishing. He rests for a while in a sawmill, where he listens to tales of the mill-snarl and witches who transform themselves into wicked cats. In “On the Heights of Alexandria,” the narrator is aboard “the Eagle,” a corvette sailing into Egypt just before Christmas. Homesick at the prospect of spending the holiday season so far away from home, the crew comfort each other with tales of the nis, the king of Ekeberg, and the neck. The details in these frame narratives key with what we know about Asbjørnsen’s life. He lived all his life in and around Kristiania, from where Maridal water is a decent hike; and he sailed the Mediterranean on “The Eagle,” returning with a good deal of folklore.

“An Old-Fashioned Christmas Eve” is unusual in that the narrator of the frame story, a newly-commissioned lieutenant recently brought low by typhoid, cannot be Peter Christen Asbjørnsen, who never served in uniform. Nevertheless, the situation described, a family Christmas party amusing itself with folktales before supper, is one Asbjørnsen considered representative of the kinds of situations in which people used to tell each other folktales.

An interesting aspect of Asbjørnsen’s frame narratives is the account of how people responded to the folk tales when they were presented. The children present at the Christmas party in this narrative, for instance, are eager to hear the familiar tales, such as “Buttertub and his dog Goldtooth”, “the nis of Hesselberg”, and “the nis who danced the Halling with a girl”. When the tales told are unfamiliar, however, such as Kari Gausdal’s tale from the orphanage, where the nis had seven souls and wanted the eighth; or when the subject matter becomes decidedly darker, such as in Mother Skau’s tale of the church service of the dead, the children are frightened, much to the mirth of the adults.

The dual response reveals that the adults did not take the tales seriously. This is confirmed by Mother Skau: “People, they tell so many tales about nisses and hulders and such, but I’m not such a great believer in it.” On the contrary, the tales were told as a form of entertainment. This does not mean that the tales were powerless against the minds of the adults, however. The tale of the church service of the dead disturbs the lieutenant to the extent that he has a bizarre dream of life in his village, and his dead grandfather, the parson.

Perhaps the affirmations of the truth of the tales have their part to play in the response, creating doubt that they are merely stories. Such affirmations are typical in Asbjørnsen’s frame narratives. Often, as here, the claim of veracity is confirmed by appeal to an unestablished authority: “old Stine out there, she’s seen the nis, she says.” However, a circular argument neatly does the trick: “I know it to be true, for there never came an untrue word from her [Mother Skau’s mother’s] mouth.”

With the exception of the final tale, which even so, was told because Mother Skau was weary of hearing about him, all the tales embedded in this narrative are about the nis. The nis (Swedish: tomte) is the most well-known subterranean creature in Scandinavian folklore, and the tales in “An Old-Fashioned Christmas Eve” function nicely as an introduction to his character. The nis is a household spirit, meaning that he has joined himself to a household, and that the fate of the household is connected to his contentment. Obviously, this may mean good or bad luck for the humans, depending on how they treat the nis. Considering his well-being by not keeping him awake too late in the evening, or waking him too early in the morning is good. So is providing him with the best porridge on Thursday evenings. When looked after, the nis will cause the household to prosper, as may be seen by the rising fortunes of the coppersmith when the nis moves in.

If, however, the nis is dissatisfied, the consequences for the household may be dire. He might take revenge for being kept awake or woken too early, by waking the rest of the house when they are trying to sleep, or by preventing them from lighting a fire at the beginning of the day. Or he might take revenge for having his porridge stolen, by dancing the thief half to death. It is little wonder, then, that this resident mischief-maker was feared by the population.

The malevolence of the nis is more than inconvenience, however. He is a sinister agent of the underworld, as the nis in the orphanage kitchen admits: “I have seven souls here in the house; I thought I would get the eighth, too.” Whether this means that seven people in the household were bound to be obedient to the nis, or whether the nis held their eternal souls, keeping them from salvation, I leave as an exercise for the reader. It is worth noting, however, that it is this final statement from the nis that scares the children.

“An Old-Fashioned Christmas Eve” may serve as an introduction to the folktales and frame narratives of Peter Christen Asbjørnsen, as well as to various facets of the character of the nis, but few people in the world read Norwegian. The narrative has been translated into English by H. L. Brækstad – relatively well, compared with certain other translations of Norwegian folklore – and published in Round the Yule Log: Norwegian Folk and Fairy Tales, 1881. However, for the sin of giving the Norwegian nisse as “brownie,” and thus unnecessarily invoking Scots folklore (“nis” is an English word, though borrowed from Norwegian), I decided a more faithful translation was warranted. It is my translation I offer to you for Christmas.

— Simon R. Hughes
Bodø, Christmas 2015


  1. I saw this based on your post on reddit and I just wanted to say thank you. It's fantastic. I'm not really a mythology/folklore expert, so I can't say anything deeply knowledgeable, but man. As a casual fan of folklore, this was truly entertaining.