Traditions of Christmas past
From feeding the birds to trick-or-treating, our ancestors knew how to celebrate jul
Norwegian-American Historical Association
Eating lutefisk and lefse, making sandbakkels and rosettes, and opening gifts on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day: These are all holiday traditions still practiced in many Norwegian-American families. But over the years, other immigrant yuletide traditions have fallen by the wayside. Sharing a bundle of grain with the birds, brewing Christmas beer, and Christmas masquerading are, for most Norwegian-American families, lost traditions of past generations.
A Feast for the Birds
A popular Norwegian tradition with an unknown origin is the sharing of a julenek, or bundle of grain, as a Christmas feast for the birds. The first written reference to the tradition is in 1753, when a prominent clergyman, Erik Pontappidan, described it as the “Norwegian peasant’s hospitality extending to the birds which he invites to be his guests by placing an unthreshed sheaf of grain on a pole against the barn door.”
Many priests in the 1700s denounced the tradition as a pagan custom, which has led to speculation that the Christmas sheaf tradition goes back to pre-Christian times. In the folk tradition, the sheaf was said to predict the following year’s harvest. If many birds flocked to the sheaf, it predicted a good harvest, but if few birds came and ate only a little, famine or a bad harvest was in store.
Over time, the custom became a popular motif in works of art as part of an idealized Norwegian Christmas, particularly during the mid-1800s. In Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001), Kathleen Stokker writes that “The julenek has become a symbol of Christmas generosity and commonly appears on Norwegian Christmas cards, wrapping paper, and gift tags.”
This custom of providing the birds a special meal at Christmas time carried over to the new land. But while the tradition is still practiced widely in both rural and urban areas in Norway, it is not widely seen in the United States.
Since Viking times, beer has played an important role in Norwegian celebrations. And while there may not seem to be an obvious connection between brewing beer and the religious holiday of Christmas, there is a long-standing association in Norway, stretching back to early Christian laws. Stokker writes that King Haakon the Good moved the mid-winter jól festival to coincide with the Christian celebration of Christmas in the 10th century. He also mandated that every peasant brew a supply of beer for the occasion. Medieval laws upheld the custom and imposed stiff fines on any landowner who didn’t brew an ample amount for the celebration. The local priests enforced these laws, going from farm to farm to inspect and test the quality of the beer. In time, a farm’s reputation within the community rested on the quality of the beer it produced, and brewing became an important part of Christmas preparations. (For more on Yule ale, see “Skål for jul!” by Judith Gabriel Vinje.)
The Norwegian website, Ølakademiet.no, (Beer Academy) describes Christmas beer as it was made “in the old days” as “full of malt flavor and not too bitter.” On the organization’s blog, Bjarte Lie Brewmaster advises: “Christmas beer should be both sweet and strong!” In some areas, juniper was used as an ingredient for bitterness, and blueberries for sweetness.
Norwegians were a superstitious lot, and brewing was no exception. They followed careful rituals to ensure the strength and quality of the beer, including consecrating the brewing vessel with hot steel or a burning branch, protecting the vessel with a knife or a piece of steel, and screaming at the yeast to “startle” it into action.
Norwegian immigrants continued the practice of brewing when they left the old country, and some maintained the folk beliefs of their Norwegian ancestors, according to Stokker. But the landscape of home brewing changed with the advent of Prohibition in 1920, banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol, including beer made at home. While Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the legislation left out the home-brewing of beer, which remained illegal on a federal level until 1979.
“Prohibition wiped out most beer styles,” says Randy Clay, co-founder of Imminent Brewing in Northfield, Minn. “As with a lot of obscure beer styles, it’s up to the home-brewing community and small craft brewers to keep these alive or revive them.”Christmas Fooling
Maybe the most unusual bygone holiday tradition is to gå julebukk, or julebukking, as it is often called in America. A julebukk is literally a “Christmas buck”—a male goat. The name’s pre-Christian roots may refer to a goat that was slaughtered for the jól celebration, or the goats in Norse mythology that pulled the chariot for the God Thor. The custom is also known as Christmas fooling, masquerading, or mumming. Imagine Christmas trick-or-treating for entire families, or groups of adults, with the disguised, uninvited guests attempting to go unrecognized by their hosts.
Oscar Hertsgaard’s memories of julebukking in his hometown of Kindred, North Dakota, during the 1880s and 1890s, are found in the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association: “At no other time of the year did sociability take over like Christmas. It might border on the hilarious when big and small groups would set out on what was called ‘julebukk’ parties. Both men and women would dress up in all sorts of disguises, like a bunch of buffoons. They would pile into bobsleds and drive from one farm to another to do their stunts of entertaining, dancing, and joking and trying to keep everyone from guessing ‘who’s who.’ Some kind of treats were expected at each place, as a slight sign of appreciation.”
Practices varied from place to place. Stokker writes that whole families or groups of friends might participate together. Julebukkers might seek out alcohol or avoid it entirely. The outing may or may not include singing or instrumental music, and groups might visit a whole neighborhood or only a few close friends.
The widespread practice of julebukking came to an end in most Norwegian-American communities in the late 1930s or early ’40s. Reasons for its demise, according to Stokker, include increased mobility, causing neighborhoods to be less homogeneous; a trend toward more standardized lifestyles; a growing suspicion of strangers; cars and tractors replacing the horse and sleigh (the traditional mode of transportation for julebukking); and the end of Prohibition, which eliminated alcohol as a motivating force behind the custom.
While the tradition may be faded, it hasn’t disappeared completely. What began as a custom for individuals and families has been revived by communities and cultural groups. The Norwegian-American hotspots of Petersburg, Ala., and Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center in Decorah, Iowa, include the custom in their annual Christmas celebrations each year.
Amy Boxrud is director of the Norwegian-American Historical Association in Northfield, Minn. (naha.stolaf.edu).
A version of this article first appeared in the Dec. 14, 2015, issue of Southern Minnesota Scene.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.