Choose your own Christmas goat & gnome

Benevolent spirits

Eric Stavney
Mukilteo, Wash.

Christmas spirits

Photo: Eric Stavney
The straw julebukk the Stavney family sets out at Christmastime.

In late November, my family unpacks the Christmas chest and sets out those objects that define the season for us. Setting aside all the ornaments, lights, and garlands, I take great joy in pulling out the big straw julebukk, whose head reaches up to my knees.

Wraps of red ribbon at its ankles and knees, and thigh, torso, tail, and snout hold this yuletide goat together. A short sheaf of the heads of wheat extends from his chin as a billy-goat beard. Tightly wrapped horns curl back from his head; almost meeting his forward bundled tail.

The julebukk in Scandinavian folklore has had a storied history leading back to pagan times. I set out the julebukk as a celebration of a good year and maybe to mark the winter solstice—that hopeful point where the dying year ends and life begins anew as the days get longer.

But the julebukk has also been thought of as the bringer of gifts, a human prankster in costume, a stand-in for St. Nicholas, and—at the opposite end of the spectrum—a symbol of the devil like the Krampus in some German and Austrian traditions. Many of these incarnations have developed from legends, paintings, poems, books, and now TV shows and movies. Just one artist’s depiction of a Christmas character can become the gold standard of that character for hundreds of years.

Christmas spiritis

Image: Public Domain
John Bauer’s julebock/joulupukki with a tomte on top.

If I were therefore to embrace an artistic version of the julebukk, it would be John Bauer’s julebock, which I’ve always taken to be the Finnish joulupukki or yuletide goat, marching laden with a bag full of gifts in the snow. The joulupukki is smiling, and has long hair—clearly benevolent and furry enough to hug. Riding on top is a diminutive gnome-like figure, which brings me to the second treasure we haul out of the Yule chest each year.

When I first learned about the invisible little guy who takes care of the animals on the farm, he was called the julenisse. But I’ve never liked his unpleasant side, being a hissiprop—temperamental and cranky—as the song “På Låven Sitter Nissen” maintains. I don’t mind his mischievous pranks when he gets no respect on the farm, like tying two cow’s tails together, or leaving the pasture gate open for the cows to get out. It’s the stories of killing a farmer’s cow because he couldn’t find his expected pat of butter in his annual julegrøt—that, well, really gets my goat.

Christmas spirits

The cover of Astrid Lindgren’s Tomten Tales shows Harald Wiberg’s tomte—mischevious but not malevolent.

So like with the julebukk, I have selectively chosen a version of the tomte I prefer, which is Harald Wiberg’s tomte. Harald Wiberg illustrated the Astrid Lindgren tomte books, which are a retelling of Viktor Rydberg’s poem, Tomten. This 2-foot-high tomte with a baggy red hat and beard down to his feet is shown tiptoeing around in the snow at night, talking softly to the farm animals “in that language that only animals understand.” It’s impossible to think of this tomte as cranky. For that kind of benevolent farm spirit, I’d set out 50 bowls of risgrynsgrøt—and I’d be sure to put the butter on top.

So as with every Christmas, we set out the Wiberg-Lindgren tomte books and read through them, with the julebukk standing close nearby. We remember to think of family and those who have passed, to honor the many people we cannot see who contribute to our lives, to be good stewards of our homes, pets, and environment, and to look forward into a new future. May your Christmas be a reflective one, too. God jul.

This article originally appeared in the December 14, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Avatar photo

Eric Stavney

Eric Stavney is a graduate of the University of Washington Department of Scandinavian Studies and hosts the interviews and music podcast “Nordic on Tap” at