Swedish Winter Farmstead Scene with Tomtar (Elves)

Glencairn Museum News | Number 2, 2013

Swedish tomtar (elves) are hard at work in this Tomtelandskap made in 1923.

Ellen Holmstedt Ahlberg and her husband Peter were members of the New Church congregation in Bryn Athyn. Peter served as a watchman at Cairnwood, the Pitcairn family home. Both Ellen and Peter were born in Malmö, Sweden, but they did not marry until 1917, when he was 64 years old and she was 37.


Figure 1: Tomte with a walking stick smoking his pipe.


An inscription hidden inside one of the buildings identifies the little red-capped men, who are busily doing the work of the farm, as tomtar. In pre-Christian Sweden a tomte (singular) was believed to be a household spirit connected to the farmstead. In the 14th century Saint Birgitta of Sweden warned against the worship of “tomte gods,” and the Church sometimes tried to suppress the tradition. Tomtar were believed to be very strong, and could be of great help in caring for the farm. However, the tomte demanded correct behavior. If the animals were neglected, or household duties were not properly carried out, the tomte might punish the offending party—or even go so far as to leave the farmstead altogether. In old Sweden the tomte served as a kind of “folk conscience.”

In the nineteenth century Viktor Rydberg transformed the tradition of the tomte with his story, Little Vigg’s Adventure on Christmas Eve, and also his poem, The Tomte. Rydberg’s tomte was a fatherly and philosophical guardian of the farm, and also a gift-giver at Christmas. In the 20th century the tomte was further popularized by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, best known for her Pippi Longstocking series.


Figure 2: Two tomtar work together with a grinding stone to sharpen an ax.


This tomtar scene is full of charming details. The red cottage has the appearance of a typical Swedish stuga (cottage). A tomte on the roof is cleaning the chimney and has appropriately sooty whiskers. In front of the stuga one tomte covers the beehives for the winter (Figure 4), while another stands and smokes his pipe (Figure 1). Several tools are leaning against the house, including a baker’s paddle used for making a traditional Swedish flatbread. On the left side of the stuga, two tomtar are chopping firewood, while another heads towards the front door with a mail bag on a dog sled. Another pair of tomtar sharpen an ax on a grinding stone (Figure 2). A sheaf of wheat is lodged in one of the trees, a traditional Swedish Christmas treat set out for the birds.


Figure 3: During repairs, an inscription was found inside the stuga: "Made by Knut Gyllensvard 1923."


Exactly how Ellen Ahlberg acquired this Tomtelandskap is a mystery. A wall on the inside of the house is inscribed: “Made by Knut Gyllensvard, 1923.” Gyllensvärd is a noble name in Sweden. There were two noblemen named Knut Gyllensvärd, but the individual associated with the Tomtelandskap was most likely the one born in 1852 on the Åby estate in the county of Kronoberg, in southern Sweden. This Knut, who was 71 years old in 1923, had a stake in a carpentry shop where furniture was made. It is unknown whether he made only the woodwork for the Tomtelandskap or the entire scene.


Figure 4: A tomte in front of the stuga is covering the beehives for the winter.


Figure 5: Tomtelandskap on display in 2013 on Glencairn's first floor.


According to Lena Kättström Höök, a curator at Nordiska museet, Stockholm, “This kind of diorama with a winter landscape, buildings and tomtar has been used by bourgeois or middle class families in Sweden at least since the 1920s. They consist of both homemade and bought objects and were put together by the family members. The family mostly created the landscape themselves. You could not buy a whole landscape like this” (Email communication to Ed Gyllenhaal, 2-25-2013).

However, in 2018 a postcard of a Tomtelandskap came up for sale on eBay. The scene shares so many similarities with Glencairn’s example (see Figure 6) that it raises the strong possibility that they were created by the same individual, Knut Gyllensvärd, whose name is written inside Glencairn’s stuga. (Or perhaps it was made by Gyllensvärd working with a team in cottage-industry fashion.) So it seems likely that the Ahlbergs purchased the Tomtelandskap in Sweden, perhaps during a 1923 trip to that country (see below).

Figure 6: Tomtelandskap postcard mailed as a Christmas greeting in 1948. The figures, tools, expressions, activities, and style are remarkably similar to Glencairn's example. In particular, note the tomte smoking a pipe near the front door and compare him to the one in Glencairn's scene (Figure 1). 

It is not known if the Ahlbergs knew Knut Gyllensvärd or whether they simply saw the scene in a shop window. An object like this would not travel well, so it seems likely that the couple might have had to reassemble or perhaps re-glue figures and objects after returning to America from a trip to Sweden in the summer of 1923. At that time Peter Ahlberg was retired and living on a small pension, and Raymond Pitcairn had purchased two tickets on the Red Star Line so that Peter and Ellen could take a trip to their homeland. Perhaps the Tomtelandskap was intended as a “thank you” for making their trip possible? Sadly, Peter Ahlberg died just a few weeks after the couple returned from Sweden.

This Tomtelandskap was treasured by the Pitcairn family. A special glass case was made to enclose it and protect the delicate figures, and the scene was brought out every year at Christmastime for the Pitcairn children to enjoy.

Individuals with information about the Ahlbergs, information about similar objects from the same period (including the postcard featured in Figure 6), or information about Knut Gyllensvärd’s role in creating Glencairn’s Tomtelandskap are welcome to contact the editor of Glencairn Museum News at ed.gyllenhaal@glencairnmuseum.org.

This article has been updated with new information about the eBay postcard on August 20, 2018.

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.