I’m trying to remember now who it was that was being so dubious when I mentioned that the Danish side of the family—my Nielsen grandparents, at whose house we always observed Christmas Eve—had a firm tradition of serving rice pudding to everyone before dinner. In one bowl there would be a hidden almond, and whoever got it was given a present.
“Rice pudding?” said my interlocutor. “On Christmas?”
“Christmas Eve,” I said. “And yes, rice pudding. Always.” I don’t know how to explain now, because I didn’t know how I knew it then, but it had the feeling of something that had to happen. It was a minor mystery, unfortunately not investigated when questions might have been answered, as is so often the case with odd memories of one’s grandparents.Today, quite by accident, I ran across this:
Of goats and elves. Scratch the surface of Christmas folklore in Scandinavian countries, and you find images and traditions that probably go way back. Perhaps this is because Christian missionaries didn’t reach these countries until the 10th and 11th centuries. …Tut. Saint Ansgar went to Sweden in 829.
There’s the Julbock or Julbukk, or Yule goat, from Sweden and Norway, who had his beginnings as carrier for the god Thor. Now he carries the Yule elf when he makes his rounds to deliver presents and receive his offering of porridge.(The site notes that the Finnish version of the Yule goat, the Joulupukki, has been known to make the delivery run himself, riding on a bicycle—when he isn’t using a sleigh and reindeer.)
The Yule elf is called Jultomten in Sweden, Julesvenn in Norway, and Julenissen in Denmark and Norway. Julenissen was remembered fondly in 1908 by Jacob Riis:An offering for the house-elf! And notice Riis’s never: this was something that had to happen. I don’t know whether Grandpa or Grandma Nielsen had any notion of leaving some rice pudding out as an offering, and I never heard mention of any Christmas entity other than Santa Claus. Still, there was that sense of something imperative attached to Christmas Eve rice pudding.“I do not know how the forty years I have been away have dealt with Jule-nissen, the Christmas elf of my childhood….He was pretty old then, gray and bent, and there were signs that his time was nearly over. When I was a boy we never sat down to our Christmas Eve dinner until a bowl of rice and milk had been taken to the attic, where he lived with the martin and its young, and kept an eye upon the house—saw that everything ran smoothly. I never met him myself, but I know the house cat must have done so. No doubt they were well acquainted, for when in the morning I went in for the bowl, there it was, quite dry and licked clean, and the cat purring in the corner….the Nisse, or the leprecawn—call him what you like—was a friend indeed to those who loved kindness and peace.”
If that’s the deal, maybe I’ll make some this year. It’s not that I’m a Scandinavian; I’m not. I’m an American who’s partly of Scandinavian descent. House-elves have never had a significant place in my worldview, and they don’t have one now. It’s just that I don’t want to be impolite about it.