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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

The Farmer from the Barrow: an Unusual Christmas Story

Updated: May 23, 2021

My Christmas eve recording of the traditional Norwegian Christmas carol "Haugebonden."

A farmer and a gnome meet on a cold evening on Christmas eve and get into an argument. It sounds unusual, perhaps a joke, but it isn’t. The peasant is gathering Christmas greens to decorate his home when he hears a voice singing in the woods, and then he sees him, the haugebonde, a Scandinavian farm spirit I picture as a bearded little fellow with a red hat, dancing in his magic grove. Thus begins the traditional Norwegian Christmas carol, “Haugebonden.”

“Haugebonden” delighted me before I knew what it was about. The melody arrested me at once, put me under its spell, you might say. But learning the story, old and rooted in folklore, with verses that confused me, much as many old Christmas carols did when I was a child and did not understand all the words, I became enamored. The peasant runs into this supernatural being and it turns out that not only do they know each other, but they get into an argument about the proper way to celebrate Christmas eve.

Author Ian Cumpstey, who has published several books of English translations of Scandinavian ballads and maintains the blog Balladspot, recently told me that this sort of supernatural occurrence on Christmas eve or Christmas night is actually common. "I can think of quite a few ballads where there is a troll that comes knocking on the door at Christmas, or a troll tells a story of how they visited "the Christian country" at Christmas and it's not just in ballad stories of course," Cumpstey said. It occurs to me that this practice finds its way into many English tales, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, to A Christmas Carol to the Dr. Who Christmas specials. Christmas in Christian tradition is full of miracles and visitations as well, with its angels and stars and magi.

The haugebonde of the song (the final -n in the song title indicates the definite article in English) is upset because the peasant's boys are partying loudly. The little fellow has tried repeatedly to set the lads straight about quiet respectful cheer, but they throw things at him and poke him and are not at all respectful in the way a human should be with one of his fairy neighbors. If it were not for his long-standing relationship with the peasant, the haugebonde warns, magical mayhem would occur! In another unusual turn, the peasant recalls the many years the haugebonde lived on his ship and how in all that time the haugebonde never paid him any rent. The haugebonde complains that the peasant never asked him for rent and in the final section of the song informs the peasant that his ship is full of presents which he describes in detail.

To my knowledge, mine is the first recording of “Haugebonden” in English. I’ve heard many renditions of it in Norwegian, but I could not even find an English translation of the song and the particular version of the carol’s lyrics I’d found were in the northern Telemark dialect and therefore were fairly impenetrable to me. I put out general calls on social media for help from Norwegian speakers and bothered Scandinavian friends, but had no luck. I finally had to reach out to universities and a school of folk performance to find a knowledgeable and friendly translator and found that in the scholar, Håkon Asheim, from the Ole Bull Academy, a Norwegian folk music college in Bergen, Norway. He translated the song for me and helped me understand the context of lyrics to allow me to understand the story. I have not run this piece by him, so any inadvertent errors are solely my own.

Harald Wiberg's illustration of the helpful farm protector from Astrid Lindgren's The Tomten.

The haugebonde is a creature whose name roughly translates to “the farmer from the barrow,” but the figure in the song is less a Tolkien barrow wight and more a Norwegian jultomte, a Christmas gnome. And like the tomte of the Astrid Lindgren’s books, this creature lives on the farm for many generations, looking after the animals while the farmer is asleep. The closest thing to compare the phenomenon to for Americans may in fact be garden gnomes, but we might also know the Grimms’ tale, “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” about elves who make shoes at night for a cobbler who was kind to them. But these elves do not like to be seen, and tomte are generally private creatures, and given to being grumpy and fickle. The haugebonde of the song seems a creature in this line as well by his complaints about how Christmas eve should be celebrated.

The word haugebonde suggests to me an even older set of beliefs than the belief in little people. The notion is that the haugebonden is the spirit of the man who first settled the farm. He has remained to look after the farm. This may sound spooky, and I suspect that it could have been spooky at one time. Some of the haugebonde’s threats, of silencing the farmer’s lads or of making the house shake, are likely reflections of that folklore tradition. But even tomtes are persnickety creatures endowed with supernatural powers and physical strength greater than a man. I think that the friendship between the man and the haugebonde takes on an even lovelier hue in this light. The haugebonde has put up with all manner of indignities, having beer mugs and bowls thrown at him, because he is friends with this man.

Swedish nisses, another word for tomte, in a 1909 illustration by John Bauer.

The maritime element of the song at first seemed a leap to me, but we know that the Scandinavians have always been mariners, and even farmers may have had cause to do some fishing during the year. Asheim told me that there are versions of the song that include more details of the haugebonde’s work on the peasant’s ship, such as helping save it when it was damaged at sea. There are stories of ship tomtes (skeppstomte) guardian spirits that care for the well being of the ship and function much as the tomtes that live on farms. The Norwegian Wikipedia article on the topic suggests that "Haugebonden" may have started as a nautical ballad and evolved the farmhouse elements in Telemark.

A klabautermann, a kind of ship tomte, from Buch Zur See, 1885.

The last part of the song is all about gifts the haugebonde has left in the ship for the peasant. These range from a valuable cup and bowl, to fancy Christmas clothes and a tablecloth. The cup seems magical, in that fourteen (plus one) can get drunk from it. There is a river dam with mills on it, each mill built with whale bones holding up iron roofs. The mills in particular made me think of “Herr Mannelig,” but the entire gift section recalls that ballad. “Haugebonden'' is a rather long song with verses that are sometimes repetitive, and I did not set words for all of the gift verses, favoring the ones I thought would make the most sense to the general listener. I will make Asheim’s entire English lyrics available for the sake of folklorists and curious readers. The gifts section also refers to the haugebonde’s wife and daughter by name (Maalfrid and Ingeri.) I’ve retained the daughter’s name, but not the wife’s, simply because the lyric scanned more easily without it. I also did not mention that the song takes place in a rose grove, which is shorthand for a magical location in some Scandinavian ballads (cf. “Herr Mannelig”). Two of the gifts in the song (the cup and a bowl) also seem, in their history, to have served as weregild, payment for murders committed, but I have not confirmed that with Asheim or other expert.

Many months and much work have gone into making it possible for me to be able to sing a Norwegian folk song in English with my seven-string lyre. Getting a literal translation was the beginning of my work, which involved adapting the words to fit the rhythms of the song. The words I sing are my own, but they are based on Asheim’s translation and I tried to be as truthful to them as I could. I also needed to arrange the song to play on my archaic instrument. Lyres have no fret boards and are limited (without retuning strings) to a single pitch per string. My lyre sometimes requires that I simplify a melody or accompaniment for this reason. In arranging the song I received guidance and feedback from my music coach, Tobin Eckian, but much of what I did was experiment on the lyre until it sounded right.

I discovered “Haugebonden” last summer while looking for new melodies to work out with my lyre and fell in love with it. The recording I heard was made by four performers, British and Norwegian, with tight, gorgeous harmonies playing bouzouki, mandolin and a Hardanger fiddle used in Norwegian folk songs. My first impression of the arrangement was that I was hearing American Appalachian music with harmonies and instrumentation that would be at home on an Alison Krauss album. Two of the performers, Janice Burns and Jon Doran, have since released a collection of English folk songs with tight, lovely harmonies, and I am a fan of their sound. As much as I love this particular version of the song, I cannot reproduce the harmonies of a quartet and my lyre requires certain allowances. That said, I also discovered that there are many, many versions of “Haugebonden” and I don’t think I do it a disservice to make it my own. There are already starker acapella versions and a pop version with an accordion, and even what I suspect to be an all-girl college acapella group version. The version that most stuck with me the most and that I found I could sing the best was by the Norwegian folk singer Arve Moen Bergset. Bergset’s performance with the group Bukenne Bruse in 2009 became a teaching tool in following the Norwegian words to set the English lyrics and developing the music. Bergset has been performing since he was a boy soprano and has produced many renditions of songs I admire. With this breakthrough, I felt I would have a performance to share and I have worked on bringing together my arrangement with my words for a few months! I hope you enjoy it. Special thanks to everyone who contributed to it.

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