I was standing at the till of our neighborhood Scandinavian store. (I live in Minneapolis, where we have such things.) The cashier was ringing up my purchase when the cash register ran out of receipt tape.

“This will take just a second,” she said, and began to put a new roll in.

It didn't take just a second. She fiddled and fiddled with it, and the tape just would not go in.

“What's wrong with me today?” she said. “I've done this hundreds of t—“

She stopped. Her squinched features relaxed into understanding. In an undertone, more to herself than to me, she said: “The nisse.”

Nisser. Tomter. Domovíye. Brownies. House-wights. We may name them differently, but nearly everyone knows them. Whatever they are.


Before he died, Sparky T. Rabbit and I had a series of conversations about the term “witch.” He argued that, given the falsity of Murray's claims, the word has lost its utility and might as well be scrapped.

My contention was that, historicity notwithstanding, it's a way of talking about the pagan survivals that did, indisputably, occur. Where did the notion of the house-wight come from? Certainly not from the church.

Finally the clerk got the tape threaded through and rang me up. I paid her and left, thinking about nisser.

Ingrebretsen's opened in 1921. 84 years carry a lot of tradition. I don't know whether or not they still set out the traditional bowl of risengröt for the nisse, the shop elf, before they lock up for the night on Julafton every year.

But it wouldn't surprise me if they do.