My informant K is a good friend of mine and their entire family loves gnomes, their mom most of all. They have a variety of different gnomes in all shapes and sizes in their front and back yards and they believe them to be a good luck charm. They also have special gnomes for every holiday, like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and they even have pink gnomes for Valentine’s Day. K was born in Sweden and they have a lot of family that live there still, so Swedish culture is a big part of their family. K told me that in Sweden, gnomes are called “tomtes” or “nisses” and they are house gnomes who live under your house and protect buried treasure.
I always found K’s story about gnomes so interesting because I didn’t even know what a gnome was before I moved to Canada and I never would have guessed how important they were in some cultures. K told me that when they were younger, their parents told them and their younger sister stories about how gnomes bury treasure in the bushes every winter, and their parents would hide gold coins for them to find. They would even put out little dishes of food for the gnomes. I think it’s really amazing how their culture is able to bond their entire family together. K said that they would decorate and set up gnomes together, or gift them to each other for birthdays or as Christmas gifts.
Background information: IJ is a 20-year-old student at USC, who currently lives in Los Angeles, CA. He often visits family members in Mexico, and learns about different types of folklore and traditions during his visits.
IJ: In my town in Mexico, people often see gnomes. Like in my house over there, we have a smaller room that’s disconnected across the main house and my cousin’s aunt stays there with her husband and her kids. And there was one time where she woke up in the middle of the night and saw her kid laughing and giggling, like standing up in his crib. And she saw the door open to outside, so she got a flashlight, because the light switch was like across the room from her and she switched on the flashlight and saw a small gnome there. He ran out the door into the cornfield behind our house. She stood there absolutely frozen, and like shell shocked and her kid started crying.
Me: Wow, that’s kind of scary! Have you ever seen a gnome when you stay at your house in Mexico?
IJ: No, but there’s been more sightings there of like little gnomes running around, like the real small gnomes with the hats (laughs). Except my aunt said this one looked more real like a doll and it had wide eyes when she flashed the light at it.
I think many people share pieces of folklore in which their child showed a greater sensitivity to something supernatural, and also often the child is more welcoming to it than adults might be. This adds an even more eerie feeling to stories like these, because it almost feels like children or babies are somehow more connected to these beings than us, as adults.
The interviewee is one of my housemates and we often engage in conversation about his Danish heritage. This folklore is a myth that he continues to practice as part of a family tradition.
following is transcribed from the story told by the interviewee.
“On Christmas growing up, we have this thing called the Yulenissa, they are these gnome things in Scandinavia. Kind of these small creatures. So every Christmas they visit and we have to leave a bowl of porridge out before night. And in the morning, we would see their footprints outside the house and there will be this whole set-up of how they snuck in. There’s a string down the fireplace and you’ll see ashes of small footprints around the house or something like that. And the Yulenissa is this trickster that’s meant to do tricks and he’ll bring presents but he’s not meant to be Santa. He doesn’t do nice things, you’re meant to put the porridge out or he would trick you. My mom did this when she was growing up with her Danish Dad and so it became a thing that we did in the family.”
This story feels very familiar perhaps because it closely resembles the myth of Santa Claus. But unlike Santa Claus, the Yulenissa is known to be a trickster. Because the Yulenissa is a trickster, there are specific steps one must take in order to ensure that their family is kept safe, which is seen in putting the porridge out. On a personal level, I think the Yulenissa is important in upholding tradition. In this myth, there are consequences if the members of that culture do not uphold the tradition. This Danish tradition is seen to have been passed down from one member of the family to another, and the spirit of bringing the family together to thwart the trickster remains.
The informant, K, is 19 years old. She was born in Long Beach, California but was raised in Los Angeles. Her dad is from Guadalajara, Mexico (Southern Mexico) but moved to the United States when he was 2. Her mom was born in Obregon, Sonora (Northern Mexico) but grew in Mexicali (a US-Mexico border town), and she moved to the United States when she was 18. She is majoring in Applied Mathematics with a Computer Science Minor. She considers herself Mexican-American (or Chicana).
K- “Ok so we have like a folklore of garden gnomes where it’s like, so it’s like my family in Mexico like my tias (aunts) from my mom’s side they believe that garden gnomes they come alive at night. And like the proof they have of it it’s like my grandma used to own gnomes and her neighbors used to own gnomes in Mexico. And the garden gnomes the next day would be found in different places and a lot of stuff was broken and sometimes my mom and her sister would wake up at night, and they used to hear things and they would look outside and they would never see the gnomes there. So there’s that story that they become alive at night in Mexico.”
Did you hear this story anywhere else with other people or other versions of it?
K-“Well recently I was talking to one of my cousins who like is from same side from my mom side and we all grew up here in America but like my cousins was supposedly telling the story to some friends whose parents were also from Mexico and like their parents here in LA here in California their parents own garden gnomes. And the thing is that this friend was telling my cousin that he actually believes what the parents are saying, because one night the garden gnomes were not where they had placed them and they found them inside the house and like the friend found them one night in the house and they were like rolling in the hallway. Since then, they got rid of the gnomes, or at least they tried to. They threw them away but the next day they were in the same place they had put them before. That’s another version, at least from here in California.”
How long ago was the first time you heard this?
K-“Two or three years ago. I just found out about my mom”
Analysis- This story is very interesting in the fact that this is one of the few stories from Mexico where inanimate objects, that are not haunted, come to life. The Mexican culture does not traditionally include creatures such as gnomes but instead, it consist of larger creatures and ghosts. This is because the country did not originally have gnomes until places, such as the United States introduced them to there. This story can be seen as a representation of the fear towards the unknown and the things that are not traditional. Traditions or stories of gnomes coming to life are more common in Europe.
Primary Informant: “So, there are these things called duendes, which are like gnomes and I guess they’re, like, cousins or something, they’re, like, related to leprechauns, essentially. And they’re popular, or known about, not just in Mexico, but also in, like, Central America, like El Salvador, or, um, in other parts of South America. And, um, apparently, from what I understand is, these, like, leprechaun-like creatures, these gnomes, they can, they like–, they choose a house or something and, um, when they choose a house, um, like, they’ll, like, try and, like, live in the house, but you can’t really see them, I don’t know, like, adults can’t really see them, I guess. But if you do see it, you have to give it food, um, because if you don’t give it food, it will, like, play pranks on you for the rest of your life. Like, it will just, like, mess with your life I guess after that. Um, and so a friend of mine was saying that, like, uh, he was at his other friend’s house and they had, like, a lemon tree or some kind of tree, a fruit tree, and, um, there would be, a, like, a– they would leave fruits on the ground, like the ones that fell. They would pick some, but they would leave others and he would pick ‘em up and he would, like, throw them or whatever. And I don’t know who it was, but it was like, ‘Noah! Don’t do that!’ and he was like, ‘Why? They’re just—they’re on the ground.’ And it was like, ‘Well, those are for the duendes, you know, so they don’t, like, come in and start, like, messing with my life.’ And, like, there are videos on YouTube, like, of duendes. And the same guy, that told me that story, he said that when he was in El Salvador with his parents, he was- he was young or whatever and he said that he saw a duende, like, following him. And he was like, ‘Mom! Mom!’ And she was like, “No, you can’t pay attention to it, don’t pay attention to it and then it will leave you alone, it won’t bother you.” Um, and that was just on the road. I don’t even think they were at the house. But, if it chooses your house and you don’t give it food, you like, you know, tell it to eff off, it will, like, mess with you forever. Um, but apparently, they really like hanging out with children and, like, playing with children I guess, um, that’s all I really know about that… Yeah. It’s, like, weird, the YouTube video, you see the guy, like this guy’s like playing soccer in his house, I don’t know why, and, um—“
Secondary Informant: “Uh, it’s like South America…. That’s like everyday.”
Primary Informant: “But, like in the house?”
Secondary Informant: “That’s like the pastime, dude.”
Primary Informant: “Okay, in the house, for sure. And he’s playing soccer in the house and he, like, kicks the ball over to the wall and ,like, you just see this little thing just like start running across the… and you just see the guy, like, freak out. He’s just like, ‘What the hell?’
Lavelle: “Is it… fake?”
Secondary Informant: “It looks genuine.”
Primary Informant: “I mean, the only thing is, it’s, like, terrible quality, so you can’t really tell. It looks like a cell phone camera.”
Secondary Informant: “Yeah, but do you really think someone would wanna go out of their way to…”
Primary Informant: “To make that up?”
Secondary Informant: “Yeah.”
Primary Informant: “I mean, maybe.”
Both informants who shared information about los duendes are of Mexican descent and heard this story from their families and friends. This story was shared in the primary informant’s apartment. We spent the afternoon sharing stories and combining the information we all had about each legend. These stories are important to the informants because they have been passed on from the older generations in their families. Because they value their older relatives, they value and enjoy the stories they’ve been told.
What I found interesting about this exchange is how it became obvious that my secondary informant was more open to the possibility of these supernatural beings actually existing, while my primary informant was growing more skeptical.