To hear “ghost” writer, Scandinavian Jennie Tornquist (1883-1983), read “Searching for Tomten in Ephraim”, click on the arrow of the black audio bar above each section of this blog.
The Jul or Christmas season is the best time to look for Tomten. Tomten are short-statured, earth-dwelling gnomes. The ones who live Door County are Scandinavian. If you drive the winding roads across the Door Peninsula, you’ll see the kind of land the Tomten settled when they first came to Door County. Tomten came to Door County centuries ago, long before Andreas or Lizzie or even the young Potawatomi boy Simon Kahquados.
IMAGE CREDIT: Finnish Tonttu or Joulutonttu, from blogs.privet.ru
Tomten live quietly and secretively in small woodlands. They favor underground homes near old barns. A few Tomten reside along Door County’s cedar-studded cliffs. There may even be a Tomten family living happily in a rock crevice of the low bluff along Moravia Street. If your dog sniffs persistently at the base of a cedar tree that has twisted roots near the ground, that could be the entry door to a Tomten underground home. If you find a four-inch strand of gray hair by the base of that tree, from a Tomten beard or braid, you can be certain you are near a Tomten home.
Tomten live over 400 years. If male, a long, white beard hangs from his chin and a red conical cap covers a receding hairline. If the tummy hangs two to five inches over a leather belt, the Tomten is likely more kind than mischievous. Tomten consider kindness, or perceptive benevolence, a noble trait. They believe a slightly round belly is evidence of kindness. This is true for female Tomten as well.
ILLUSTRATION SOURCE: Gnomes by Wil Huygen, illustrated by Rien Poovrtvliet, 1976.
Female Tomten traditionally have worn skirts and vested tunics in earth-tone colors. If she is an elderly Tomten, say over 350 years old, she proudly sports a brush stroke of chin whiskers. Waxing and electrolysis are considered bad form. For Tomten females, facial hair is an indication of high intelligence and shrewd wit.
Traditionally, the cone-shaped caps of female Tomten are chestnut brown; however, if she is unmarried the cap is green. That said, tradition has given way in the decades since 1853 as you will discover in the following paragraphs. Ephraim Tomten call 1853 the Year of Connection. In February, 1853, a sorry-looking group of tall-walkers arrived at Eagle Harbor needing all the help they could get. Tomten were and still are quite helpful to tall-walkers as long as the hooman beans are nice to animals, are not lazy, and refrain from urinating inside barns where Tomten sometimes hide.
Alleged 1990s Tomten Sighting at the Anderson Barn
A Tomten sighting in about 1992 illustrates how Tomten traditional clothing has changed since the Year of Connection. It also illustrates a typical interaction between Tomten and hooman beans.
ILLUSTRATION SOURCE: Gnomes by Wil Huygen, illustrated by Rien Poovrtvliet, 1976.
Tomten had lived quietly at the Anderson Barn for over one hundred years. Though Tomten lived strictly in forests in ancient times, they were learning to adapt to living with tall-walkers. Living with hoomans, they discovered, had benefits. For example, in Ephraim’s early days hoomans like Greta Hanson Anderson often left apple kuchen to cool on the cabin window sill. “Finders keepers” is, of course, a well-known motto of the Tomten. Knowing this, the Anderson Barn seemed a fine place to live for Tomten. Beginning in 1890, ten-year-old Frank Anderson tended the barn and its odiferous animals – the horses, milk cow, and Tomten favorite – piggies. Even when noisy horseless carriages began carting even noisier visitors to Door County from faraway places, the Anderson Barn was still peaceful. Most of the tall-walkers bustled down by the dock and store.
Then, in 1992, came days of earsplitting racket. By this time, the farm animals were long gone and, except for the Tomten family living there, the barn was empty. Suddenly one day, a hooman named Dan Franke used a whirring tool, a chain saw, to cut off a foot of rotten wood from the Anderson Barn. That’s when Franke and the two Pauls that were with him, a Walch and a Burton, saw a knee-high Tomten, apparently a female from the buxom silhouette, scramble from underneath the structure and run east towards Trixie, the Peterson’s cedar horse!
She was dressed in knee breeches, purple argyle stockings, and a black, Goth-like tunic. It’s unlikely she was wearing upper undergarments, but this had nothing to do with hooman bean influence on Tomten traditional fashion for according to Will Huygen, author of Gnomes (1976), “decreased gravity at her height has always allowed the female Tomten to go through life unencumbered by a brassiere.” This Anderson Barn Tomten also donned a red plaid polar fleece (not classic felt) cap with a shocking swag of netting, apparently pilfered from a bag of oranges the tall-walkers had left lying by the barn’s unusual square silo. Since all Tomten have ruddy lips and cheeks, which redden with age, no additional make-up was apparent.
Unfortunately, this sighting was before cell phone cameras so none of the tall-walkers snapped a photo for proof – or even for the Ephraim Historical Foundation archives. Instead, they responded like typical hooman beans. Startled, they threw their coffee cups in the air, stared at each other blankly, and never again spoke publicly about the Tomten sighting.
To learn more about the book Gnomes (1976) click here.
How to See a Tomten
You are not likely to see a Tomten. They are secretive, remember? But just in case I will offer a few tips because as said at the start, the Jul season offers the best chance for sightings.
1. Porridge On Juleaften (Christmas Eve/Norwegian), it’s imperative you put out a bowl of porridge with a pat of butter on top for Tomten. DO NOT put the butter under the porridge. Tomten are short-tempered, easily insulted, and will play tricks on hoomans when crossed.
IMAGE SOURCE: pastandpresent.com, tomten-jenny-nystrc3b6m.jpg
2. Tracks Tomten carve bird tracks onto the soft wooden soles of their birch bark shoes. Look for 3-inch long tracks, with three lines made to look like a bird’s three toes. In Ephraim, you may think you are looking at turkey tracks, when you’ve really been fooled by the Tomten. Be especially alert for Tomten if you notice three-toed tracks going in and out of your shed or barn.
3. Rub Noses Before the sun sets on Juleaften, stand on your porch (or if you must, stay inside by a well-lit window). This year, mask up and find a partner. If there is no hooman bean, find your dog, cat, or teddy bear. Face each other, turn around in a circle, and rub noses with your partner. Sing Stille Nacht (Silent Night). This is the traditional Juleaften greeting and will ingratiate you to the Tomten, who will certainly be watching you from behind a nearby tree.
4. Wrinkles It is well known that Tomten have a many wrinkles around their eyes. These are smile tracks, for Tomten crinkle up their eyes when enjoying belly laughs. In fact it’s also known – though not scientifically confirmed – that an abundance of wrinkles around the eyes of a gray-headed, elderly hooman bean, who was born in Ephraim, may indicate Tomten ancestry. If, like Tomten, this person snortles when laughing Tomten ancestry is a certainty. You see, once upon a time a tall-walker and Tomten fell in love … but that’s a story for another day.
Coming this Winter
More stories of Ephraim Tomten, including how a Tomten helped Jim the Horse when the wagon Anders Petterson was driving flipped over in the snow (see page 75 in the classic Ephraim Historical Foundation book The Door County Letters of Anna and Anders Petterson 1884-1889).
Submitted by “ghost” writer Jennie Tornquist
Recommended Children’s Books
Lindgren, Astrid. The Tomten, 1961. Author of Pippi Longstocking.
Lindgren, Astrid. The Tomten and the Fox. 1965.
Norton, Mary. The Borrowers, 1952. Not Tomten, but classic fantasy in similar genre.
Berquist, Goodwin. Half a Century with the Ephraim Foundation (Ephraim Foundation, 1999).
Huggen, Wil. Gnomes (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1976). Illustrated by Rien Povrtvleit.
Rydberg, Victor as told by Spencer Harden. 1995. Wikipedia, “Nisse (folklore)”.