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retold by Cathy S. Mosley;
based on a Swedish folk tale
Once, either long ago or as near as yesterday, there was a farmer who was considered relatively prosperous; though he was not so rich he was wasteful. Nor was he prideful in his good fortune.
His neighbors considered both he and his wife hard-working, pious, souls, who were generous to those less fortunate. The couple were also considered very lucky for they had a tomte on their farm, and this kind spirit did much of the work; though they never, ever saw him. Through his efforts their crops always came in plentifully, the chicken coop had never been touched by foxes, the stable was spotless each morning, and both the cows and the horses always had been groomed until they gleamed.
And as was proper they set out a bowl of porridge at Christmas.
Years went like this, but one night the farmer confessed to his wife that he was curious to see the tomte - the protector of their good fortune.
She said, "If you do not disturb him all be well....After you milk the cows hide yourself in loft and watch...."
This the farmer did, and after a long wait snuggled in the hay, he saw a tiny little man enter the stable; a little gentleman with wild and long gray hair and beard, and the tatters of clothes. Maybe the clothes had once been colorful....maybe the cap had been red...but all were now gray and threadbare. And under the farmer's gaze the tomte cheerfully set to work.
The next morning the farmer told his wife, "The tomte works with the industry of a dozen farm hands, but wears the miserable clothes of the worst beggar. That just doesn't seem right."
"No," she agreed, "It doesn't....." His wife thought for a few more moments, already picturing the clothes she would sew, "For Christmas this year, along with his porridge, I'll make him a fine suit"
This was exactly what she did, and by Christmas Eve she had sewn blue trousers, a green jacket, and even a jaunty red cap; all made from good wool and trimmed with pretty embroidery of birds and flowers. Then she wrapped it all in white linen and told her husband to place it where the tomte would find the package.
The farmer did just that - then hid himself in the loft.
Not too much later the tomte entered - looking as wild and tattered as ever. He went to eat his porridge and stared in puzzlement at the package.
Slowly he opened it and grinned.
He finished his dinner, cleaned the stable and animals until they gleamed, and after shrugging off his rags he put on the fine suit.
"Look at me - as fine as can be!! Look at me - as fine as can be!!" he chanted in delight - dancing about the stable. "Look at me!!" he called to both the cows and horses, "I look to be a gentleman!!"
In the loft the farmer was grinning at how well the tomte liked his present, but then the farmer watched with some confusion and concern as the tomte went to each animal and petted them.
"Good bye to you," the Tomte said, "Now I'm too fine a gentleman to work!!" And with those words he danced out into the glittering winter night.
And while the farmer and his wife did not find their Christmas as bright they did not find the coming year lacking.
Tomtar are known through Sweden as a helper fairy or spirit who cares for a particular building or farm, or guards a piece of land; much like the Nisses of Denmark and the Brownies of England they can be easily insulted by slovenly habits, or driven away by the offering of new clothes. And insulted Tomte can be prankster about his old home, but normally they take great pride in caring for their land and their animals.
Simpson, Jacqueline. Scandinavian Folktales. London: Penguin Books. 1988.