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.



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.