An Old World Christmas

By Tobias Wayland; images by Emily Wayland

The Old World Christmas Market in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, is a cacophony of Christmas cheer that immediately assaults our senses. The crowded venue smells of the bratwurst, sauerkraut, and mulled wine for sale, and naturally Emily and I follow our stomachs to be satiated by the outstanding traditional cuisine. Our appetites sated, we wander leisurely through the happy holiday crowd, enjoying the many vendors. The stands are largely local, although not exclusively so, and offer a wide selection of handmade holiday decorations. One vendor hails from Germany and has wonderfully whimsical hand-carved Christmas accoutrement such as glockenspiels, nut crackers, and small folk figurines. We’ve come to the christkindlmarkt in search of strange traditions, and his small, gnomish woodcarvings draw my eye immediately.

The owner and carver of the festively fortean figures is Gerhard Lippmann, a jovial German man with a thick accent and an infectiously good nature. He describes the gnomes as “household angels” that will bring you luck and protect your home. The one that caught our eye he tells us is named Rutabaga, and this helpful household guardian is known for providing firewood and precious stones to his host family. Gerhard’s description reminds me of the Heinzelmännchen—hardworking household fairies who happily complete the chores of their adopted dwelling, unless the curiosity or other rude behavior of the warded home’s inhabitants offends the otherwise genial gnomes.

The German Heinzelmännchen bear a strong resemblance to their fellow Germanic fairy folk the Nisse or Tomte, who are most often associated with the winter holiday season. These Scandinavian spirits are said to be the souls of the dead who return to aid their descendants, and were thought of as general ancestral spirits attached to specific families and homesteads. Yule, the traditional mid-winter festival of the Germanic peoples, was a time to remember and honor one’s ancestors, and this season was thought to have an increase in supernatural activity. It makes a certain sense, then, that the restless spirits of our ancestors would visit us this time of year, and that Yule—and thus modern Christmas, which borrows heavily from the pagan festival—would relate to these gnomish spirits thought to be them. So, when we see these gnomes around Christmas, what we’re likely seeing is a form of ancestor worship associated with this season for thousands of years.

Personally, I find it difficult during the holidays not to think of loved ones who’ve passed, and if the idea of them being able to visit you over Yule is a comforting one, then I hope you use it. Regardless of whether these gnomes are spirits of the dead, they are proof of the pagan traditions that have formed our culture since the nights when Odin was thought to lead the Wild Hunt. It’s not important that we believe fairies are the souls of dead humans—and I personally don’t believe that they are—what’s important is that our ancestors thought that the Nisse and Tomte were, and that belief likely informed the appearance of the German Heinzelmännchen and its connection to Christmas. It’s certainly something to contemplate this Yuletide season over a flagon of mead, in any case.