Here at Brookside Garden Centre, gonks have been as much a part of Christmas in recent years as the big man himself – and not just because of the physical similarities – and as time goes by, we seem to have an increasing number nestled within our Christmas shop. For those unfamiliar with the elf-like figures, just imagine soft, cuddly, bearded gnomes, a little stumpy, slightly rotund with over-sized hats that have slid down over their eyes, down to their stubby, round noses, but rather than be irritated – and who could blame them? – they seem to embrace the slip without a care. And, you’ll find them in every possible size and colour, and in many different guises too: not only do we have cuddlies in varying sizes, we have gonks to hang on your tree, ceramic ornamental ones, gonk cushions, wrapping and tissue paper, and even gonk doorstops, and we still keep searching for more merchandise, so they’re not going away any time soon. But where did they come from? When did they become such a familiar sight at this time of year? We may have done our best to increase the popularity of gonks locally, but we can’t take full credit for consumers’ embracing their presence, so we’ve looked into their history, and it just makes us love them even more…
Originating in Nordic and Scandinavian mythology, gonks are known as Nisse in Denmark and Norway, Tonttu in Finland, and Tomte in Sweden, and the first written records of their existence date back to the 1600s, but there may be reference to them as far back as the 13th century. They were said to seek shelter in houses and outbuildings during the colder months, and once discovered, if they were welcomed and treated well by families, they would spread some magic and protect their temporary homes and hosts, bringing them good luck during the winter solstice, but they turned rather bad-tempered and mischievous if they felt they’d been disrespected and were unwanted, playing tricks and causing general mayhem.
Although they may not have started life as a part of Christmas, as celebrations around yuletide became more prevalent, the hospitality often offered during the season mirrored that of the gonk folklore, and the two traditions blended. Many Scandinavian families still leave bowls of porridge outside for any passing gonks to feast upon, continuing the custom of a welcoming and generous time of year.
Gonks in the UK were completely different characters, created in the 1960s, gaining popularity in the 1970s, and were essentially a cylindrical, faux-fur covered blob with googly eyes, in the gaudy colours we associate with that period, but at some point – for reasons we just cannot fathom – they fell out of favour, and the name was reassigned to our little gnome-like friends; it wasn’t long before the new incarnations became synonymous with Christmas. Given the variety of sizes, colours and styles, it’s easy to see why they’ve come to be a favourite in our homes and a friendly and welcoming sight for ourselves and our visitors.
So, what do we do with them? Well, that depends on what kind you have… We have gonks with string woven into their long hats to hang on trees, but others have wired hats that can be moulded round the branches; both can be used wherever you might hang a bauble or two; other small gonks can be positioned within the tree too (depending on the size and type of both, of course). Plush gonks can be arranged in displays on just about any surface – sofas, window sills, etc – but if you plan to place them on a hearth or anywhere near a fireplace, flammability may be an issue; an arrangement of gonks in a hallway, however, would make a charming greeting for any guests. Like some of the cuddlies, ceramic gonks can be placed together as a cheeky display or mixed with existing ornamental decorations for a little variety. And then there are the long-legged ones, who sit proudly on shelves and mantels, happy to preside over the festivities either alone or with a friend or two. Our favourite place, though, has to be nestled amongst the presents, keeping guard, ensuring no sneaky peaks before Christmas Day.
Wherever you place yours, be good to them, and the magic they conjure could well be yours this year; at the very least, they’ll bring additional warmth and fun to the season and many more to come, and no, we’ve not gonk-crazy!
Do you have a favourite?