Porridge, Christmas and Ceremonial Sacrifice?

There is an interesting old Christmas tradition here in Sweden. It has nothing to do with Santa Claus or the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ. It involves… porridge, traditionally. Yeah, porridge.

According to tradition, a family should always remember to leave a bowl of good porridge outside on Christmas eve. Sweet, good porride, preferably with a knob of butter in it. Thanks to a bit of linguistic confusion and mixing of traditions, some today (kids especially, I am guessing) will believe that this bowl of porridge is for Santa Claus. But no!

The word used in Swedish for Santa Claus is “tomte”. But see, already before people were bringing the great big bearded gift giver (Santa) into the picture, a “tomte” was more like a gnome. You know garden gnomes? A little creature looking like an old man, only… small? Yep, that’s it. That is a “tomte” if you cut Santa out of the picture.

These are beings that have been thought to live alongside humans, helping to take care of the home and those living there. Make your house “tomte” upset and you might find your cows getting sick! Keep him happy and he’ll make sure things run smoothly around the farm. He’ll help keep the place clean, orderly, safe. If kept happy.

And there we get to the porridge. On Christmas eve tradition said, and still says, that a bowl of porridge should be left outside for the “tomte”, the (hopefully) friendly house gnome, as a thank you for all his help, and in the wish that he’ll stay happy and helpful.

Yes, it’s still done today. Not by every family – you won’t see people set out porridge outside their apartment doors in the cities for example – but it is still very much a living tradition. Few will call it a “sacrifice”, but of course that is what it is.

So many will think of sacrifice as involving blood and death, they imagine slaughtering animals in honour of pagan gods, they imagine the macabre and scary. Sacrifice doesn’t have to be that. It can just be that bowl of porridge too.

 


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So far this winter we have had unusually little snow, but it is still beautiful.

 

Being raised a city girl, brought up in an apartment block in a highly modern city, I never did this as a child. Still it was something I was aware of, as long as I can remember I’ve known of the tradition, it was just not something done in my neighbourhood – who expected the apartment block to have any tomtar anyway?

Today, my husband and I live in a classic red-and-white house out on the countryside. The picture above shows the view from our living room window! Any tomtar around?

I am not bound by tradition. My beliefs are my own, I draw inspiration from tradition but in the end, I put together my own practices. And while I see a core of truth in the idea of the tomte, I do not see it as a little old man with grey beard and a hunger for porridge specifically. I see the unseen, the spirits of the land, the beings living and breathing here, by our side but mostly unknown. Benevolent or not so much, friendly or mischievous, it probably varies. They are not gods, nor angels, nor something as abstract as symbols. They are people but not like us. I don’t understand them yet, but there they are.

We didn’t give porridge. My husband absolutely hates porridge and we very rarely have any at home. And we weren’t even at home on Christmas eve, so instead it was done a few days after, when we had returned home. I don’t think they care if it’s the 24th or 25th of 27th anyway.

Blueberry mead. We offered blueberry mead, drank some ourselves, toasted to the spirits of the land and all those who are, have been and will be tied to this land. The moon was big and gave far more light than the little lantern we had brought out, the sky was full of stars and the night was cold. As ceremonies go, it was simple yet beautiful.

Perhaps it’ll be some porridge too next year. With plenty of sugar and cinnamon, and a knob of butter in the center. But for this year, I think the mead did well enough.

 

 

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Porridge, Christmas and Ceremonial Sacrifice?

    1. I keep thinking I should learn more about Finnish traditions, but that goddamn language difference… So easy to end up looking at Norwegian and Danish sources with the language being so easily understood, Finland tends to get unfairly left out. D: Every time I DO look at Finnish sources I get blown away by how much interesting stuff there is to find there though. Some day I need to better myself in that field, clearly.

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  1. They sound like the brownies we have in the UK – though sadly I fear any tradition around them has long since been lost. I like how in ancient times, the tomte/tonttu was thought to be the soul of the original inhabitant of the dwelling. I’ve often thought about all the previous occupants of old houses, and whether they’ve left anything of themselves behind, lingering long after they’ve gone.
    A final thought – If only more people could follow their own personal faith/beliefs – instead of blindly following pre-written rules.

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    1. Yes! The brownie does seem to be the equivalent of our hustomte, they even look the same. Goodie, I learned something new here, thanks!

      Seeing how we live in a brand new house (we built it three years ago) I don’t expect there to be any beings connected to the actual house. But the land? The house may be new but the land is old after all. At some point I really need to dig into the local history of this place, I would like to have a clearer picture of what has been going on here before. As an archaeologist I am ashamed to say I haven’t already looked into it!

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  2. In Denmark we use the word Nisse for Tomte, but I think they’re largely identical.

    I just fear we may have chased them all off with our disregard for nature and their habitats and our busy noisy lives. I’d like a bit of ‘magic’ back. Even if most would consider me half mad to saying it out loud.

    So I held my own blót this year, on behalf of the whole family, and sacrificed both mead (not home made, sadly) and Honey (also sadly not home made). Not only to the gods, but also to any possible ‘hidden’ people we might have nearby.

    After making my sacrifices to the gods and our ancestors, I made an open invitation for good people of the ‘hidden’ to come to our house, share it, help us and vice versa. In Iceland, these fey-folk are commonly accepted or if not, at least respected.

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    1. Oh that’s great to hear, I was curious of how your blót plans went! Sounds like a beautiful ceremony too, I hope the hidden ones will answer your invitation. Though who knows, they might have been around all along, just hidden? x)

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