Of goats and reindeer: Nordic connections in Christmas stories
M. Michael Brady
The traditions of celebrating Christmas in the Nordic countries are historically entwined with the conversion of the countries to Christianity at the beginning of the Viking Age. Some mentions are in descriptions of medieval Catholic processions that figure in folk myths, such as Oskoreia, described in the Norwegian American Weekly last Christmas, link at: www.na-weekly.com/featured/oskoreia.
One of the oldest surviving characters is the Julebukk (“Christmas Goat”) of Norway, known as Julebock in Swedish, Juleged in Danish, and Olkipukki in Finnish. Initially the Julebukk was a goat slaughtered at Christmastime to celebrate the end of the agricultural work year. With time, it meant a person who led a costumed procession from house to house, to entertain the residents and be rewarded with food and drink. In the early 19th century, the Julebukk also became the bringer of presents, the predecessor of the Julenisse, equivalent to Santa Claus in English. Today the Julenisse and Santa Claus have taken over present-bringing, but effigies of the Julebukk still are made, most of straw, the largest a giant statue in Gefle, Sweden.
Arguably the greatest 19th century change of the Christmas myth took place in the U.S. The story starts on December 23, 1823, with “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a poem in the Troy, N.Y., Sentinel, published anonymously but generally attributed to theologian and poet Clemet Clarke Moore. Though now seldom read in full, we all know the storyline of the man of the house who is awakened on Christmas Eve by a sleigh drawn by eight reindeer landing on the roof. And likewise we know the lyrics of the enduring song “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” about a ninth reindeer with a luminous nose, first recorded by singing cowboy Gene Autry in 1949, based on a poem written in 1939 by Robert L. May for a children’s Christmas book published by mail-order retailer Montgomery Ward.
Today, the American story of Santa and his reindeer is as ubiquitous at Christmastime as is the tradition of decorating evergreen trees, first observed in sixteenth century Germany. And as history suggests, its roots are European, more specifically Nordic. The first illustrated description of reindeer pulling sleds is in the travelogue “Opera Lapponia” by Johan Scheffer, a professor at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, first published in Latin in 1674 and later in English translation in 1704. That book includes a woodcut depicting a single reindeer pulling a pulk, the boat-like sled used by the Sámi, for centuries the nomads of the north. Only one reindeer is shown, because unlike other draft animals, reindeer will not work together in teams. Like other literary figures of his time, poet Moore may have read extracts of Scheffer’s book, but not seen the illustrated original.
Apparently poet Moore combined the anecdote of the reindeer-drawn sled, about which he had only read, with the details of dogsleds with which he undoubtedly was familiar, as they were much used by the native residents of the U.S. and Canada. So with poetic license, flying reindeer indeed might be hitched in teams, as were real sled dogs. Likewise, artists who drew Santa’s airborne sleigh most likely modeled it after the horse-drawn sleighs of the mid nineteenth century. So an airborne sleigh might well have been modeled on a passenger sleigh with thin runners inadequate to support it on rooftop snows.
Moore’s choice of “reindeer” may have perpetuated the story, as it has a more romantic ring than “caribou,” the name of the animal in North America. Moreover, it’s been in English longer, since 893, when King Alfred the Great wrote down tales he heard from Othere of Hålogaland, including “rein,” the Norwegian name of the animal. That became the source-word in most European languages. The mere mention of a rein-word now connotes happenings in the far north, where Santa is said to have his workshop, at some undefined place. The mythical location of the workshop at the North Pole clearly is impractical, particularly for the elves working in its distribution center. In the Nordic countries where reindeer still roam, several towns claim the workshop. Most enterprising is the city of Rovaniemi at the Arctic Circle in Finland. About six miles north of the city there is a Santa Claus Village and theme park, fittingly just two miles from the Rovaniemi Airport.
Another Old Norse word is prominent in the lingo of Christmas. The English word “Yule” is derived from one or more of seven spellings in Old English, which meant the months of December or January. Around the year 900, “Yule” came to mean Christmas and its festivities. Further back, these words came from the Old Norse jól, which in addition to being the root of the modern Norwegian word “jul,” is the root of the word “joli” in French, meaning lovely, nice, or pleasing, and from it the word “jolly” in English.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 18, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.