A tomte or nisse is a mythical creature of Scandinavian folklore, believed to take care for a farmers home and barn and protect it from misfortune, in particular at night, when the housefolk were asleep.
Tomte is the common Swedish name, derived from his place of residence and area of influence: the house lot or tomt.
Nisse is the common name in Norwegian, Danish and the Scanian dialect in southernmost Sweden; it is a nickname for Nils, and its usage in folklore comes from expressions such as Nisse god dreng ("Nisse good lad/boy," cf. Robin Goodfellow).
The tomte was often imagined as a small, elderly man (exact size varies from a few inches to about half the height of an adult man) with a full beard, gray or white; dressed in ordinary, gray clothing, whith the exeption of a bright-red knitted cap.
As he was thought to be skilled in illusions and able to make himself invisible, one was unlikely to get more than brief glimpses of him, though.
Despite his smallness, the tomte possessed an immense strength, and even though he was protective and caring, he was easy to offend, and his retributions ranged from a stout box on the ears to the killing of livestock.
Like many other mythical creatures, one was also required to please him with gifts – but this gift was a bowl of porridge or rice pudding on Christmas night.
If he wasn't given his payment, he would leave the farm or house which couldn't survive without his nightly chores, or engage in mischief, such as tying the cows' tails together in the barn, turning objects upside-down, and breaking things.
The tomte liked his porridge with a pat of butter on the top.
In an often retold story, a farmer put the butter underneath the porridge.
When the tomte of his farmstead found that the butter was missing, he went straight on and killed all the cattle resting in the barn.
But, as he thus became hungry, he went back to his porridge and began eating it, and so found the butter at the bottom of the bowl. Full of grief, he then hurried to a far away land with magic cattle, milking much better than the ones he had put to death, and replaced the latter with the former.
And so they lived happily ever after.
The tomte shares many aspects with other Scandinavian wights, such as the Swedish vättar or the Norwegian tusser.
These beings are social, however, whereas the tomte is always solitary.
Some synonyms of tomte include gårdbo (yard-dweller) and gardvor (yard-warden, see vörðr).
The tomte could also take a ship for his home, and was then
known as a skeppstomte/skibsnisse.
In other European folklore, there are many beings similar to the tomte, such as the Scots brownie, the German Wichtelmann or the Russian domovoi.
The Finnish word tonttu has been borrowed from Swedish.