Do you remember Julebukking or “Christmas Fooling” as some people called it?
When I was young, a memorable, but scary event, was the arrival of the Julebukkers at our farm. You might call it Halloween trick-or-treating for grown-ups, and it usually took place between Christmas and New Year’s. Julebukkers would dress up in costumes and wear masks that might be made from feed sacks with a face painted on it and holes cut out for the eyes. Sometimes, large groups of men and women would come and they appeared very large and scary to us when we were young.
Our grandmother had told us stories about the bogeymen and trolls found in Norway, who only came out at night and would come and get us if we weren’t good. Julebukkers always came at night, too. I watched out the window as these ugly creatures got out of cars and pickups and started trudging across our yard through the snow. The yard light cast long shadows that made them look even scarier. I thought for sure the bogeymen and trolls had arrived from Norway and were coming to get me!
I heard them tromping across the floor in the entryway between our kitchen and the shanty, also called the summer kitchen. By this time our dog, Duke, was barking up a storm and trying to scare these monsters away. The Julebukkers knocked loudly on the door and then entered. I disappeared into the living room as they entered the kitchen. They disguised their voices, and our parents and Grandma Inga would try to guess who they were. Sometimes they didn’t talk at all and they had to try and guess who they were by their size or how they acted. Norwegian treats were always handed out before they left. Many of the Julebukkers carried shot glasses and they didn’t go away thirsty. A bottle of brandy would be retrieved from a brown paper sack, usually stored out of sight in a cupboard. Many Norwegians liked a drink once in a while, but they kept it out of sight in case the Lutheran minister made an unannounced visit. The more homes the Julebukkers visited, the more happy and boisterous they became. They were mostly nearby neighbors who were out enjoying an old Norwegian tradition. Some people never took their masks off and they’d leave you wondering, “Who was that masked man?” I waited for someone to holler “Hi-oh Silver” as they jumped in their cars and pickups and drove off into the night.
The roots of Julebukk, or “Christmas buck,” lie deep in the cultural history of Norway. The earliest form of Julebukking was a pre-Christian pagan ritual. In Viking historical lore, Thor, the God of Thunder, roared through the heavens in a chariot drawn by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr — roughly translated as “Toothgnasher” and “Toothgrinder.” The sound of the chariot and goats created the sound of thunder rumbling across the sky. According to the “Prose Edda,” Thor was known to kill the goats in order to have food, which he shared with others. After the meal was finished, Thor would use his powers to revive the goats as if nothing had happened. This led to a now-defunct Norwegian and Swedish winter tradition of having someone dress up as a goat, pretend to get sacrificed and come back to life when Thor revived them. This return to life was a symbolic gesture of the natural world changing from the long, dark days of winter to days of the lengthening sun.
With the introduction of Christianity to Norway in the 11th century, all references to Thor were stripped away, but Norwegians transformed Thor’s goats into a Yule Goat or Julebukk — roughly translated as “Christmas buck.” Later that custom was forbidden by the church and banned by the clergy. Yet, like many pagan holiday traditions, Julebukking persisted. The celebration of the Julebukk became an observance of the winter solstice.
When our Norwegian and Swedish ancestors came to America, they brought the Julebukking tradition with them. It was still carried out when I was young in the 1950s, but I think it’s pretty much relegated to memory now, among us older Norwegian-Americans. Holiday parties have replaced people going door-to-door to have some fun and get free drinks around Christmas and New Year’s. Times have changed, too. Many people wouldn’t know their neighbors if they passed them on the street. Also, there’s the possibility of being greeted at the door with a shotgun staring you in the face if you and a bunch of other grown-ups in masks knocked on someone’s door at night. That’s a sad sign of the times.