Swedish Winter Farmstead Scene with Tomtar (Elves)

Glencairn Museum News | Number 2, 2013


Tomtelandskap, 1923


This handcrafted Swedish diorama was given to the Raymond Pitcairn family in the early 1920s by Ellen Holmstedt Ahlberg. Ellen 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.


Tomte Smoking a 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.


Tomtar Sharpening 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, while another stands and smokes his pipe. 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 toward the front door with a mail bag on a dog sled. Another pair of tomtar sharpen an ax on a grinding stone. A sheaf of wheat is lodged in one of the trees, a traditional Swedish Christmas treat set out for the birds.


Inscription inside 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.


Tomtelandskap, 1923


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).


Tomte Covering the Beehives for Winter


It is not known how the Ahlbergs knew Knut Gyllensvärd, and it is possible that the Ahlbergs made some or all of the figures for the scene. An object like this would not travel well, so it seems likely that the couple assembled the diorama 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, 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.

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