From mythic memories to tree ornaments

The ancient julebukk lives on in contemporary Norwegian celebrations

Photo: Judith Gabriel Vinje
Today the julebukk is most often seen in the form of a straw ornament.

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

One of the many time-honored elements that are brought to life—or at least out of storage—at Christmas in Norway is the Christmas goat, the julebukk. Its origins have an ancient and somewhat mysterious history. And it’s not all about merriment and festivity.

Norwegians have incorporated a goat into the winter holidays for centuries, in one form or another. It has been the bearer of gifts, an evil spy, a masquerade spoof, and, most recently, a plethora of straw ornaments on the Christmas tree.

The goat has been the object of ritual sacrifice, it plays a role in Norse myth as well as the Old Testament, and it has been seen as a god and a devil.

No matter which role it has played, it is a ubiquitous symbol of the yuletide, found everywhere in Norwegian homes, usually in the form of a straw miniature bedecked with red ribbons, bearing huge curling horns.

Centuries of folklore surround the creature. The goat is, after all, one of the first animals to be domesticated, and it thrives in desert as well as mountain climes. A common figure in Western mythology, the goat is represented in the mischievous Pan, Greek god of nature, a human body with goat’s feet.

In actual human history, goats played a major role in several cultures, often as the object of ritual sacrifice. In pre-Christian Norway, a goat was sacrificed at jul. Even in the Old Testament, one goat is to be sacrificed, while another is to be cast into the desert, thus carrying away the sins of the tribe. Hence, the tragic role of the “scapegoat.”

And it can be no mere coincidence that the jul period coincides with the astrological sign of Capricorn—the goat—whose stellar reign just happens to begin on the Winter Solstice, marking the darkest, shortest day of the year.

Thor’s goats
Goats are very versatile creatures, even in mythology. For the Old Norse Vikings, two mighty goats pulled the sleigh of Thor, the thunder god, on his flight through the heavens. Any resemblance there to Santa and his reindeer?

Thor’s month started with jul, and the jul feast was the red-headed deity’s favorite. His goats—Tanngrisnir (teeth snarler) and Tanngjóstr (teeth grinder)—were quite magical in that they could be slaughtered and eaten, only to return to life the next day.

At one time, during the 19th century, the jul goat was the bearer of gifts. Long before Santa Claus, one of the men in the family would dress up as a goat to deliver the presents.

Obviously, the goat’s role in the Nordic jul has changed over the centuries. At one time, the goat was thought to be an invisible spirit that would pop up to check on whether or not Christmas preparations were being properly made. It was often identified with Odin’s Wild Ride through the skies in mid-winter. And it has some elements that were “inherited” by Santa Claus.

The shaggy creature was also emulated in the staging of the often-terrifying ritual known as going julebukk, å gå julebukk. (Julebukk is a male goat.) Costume-clad participants visited neighbor’s homes, often hoisting large goat heads and cloaked in goat skins or other animal hides.

In the old peasant society, it was the adults who “went julebukk.” Wearing various costumes, they would traipse from house to house, challenging their surprised hosts to recognize who was beneath the mask. They would virtually demand they be given food and drink. Often this seasonal prank would result in being given leftovers from Christmas dinner. Even Norwegian immigrant communities in the U.S. indulged in the seasonal masquerade.

But the use of goat heads largely disappeared in the 1950s, according to Kathleen Stokker, author of Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land, and Norwegians made other masks.

According to a 1997 newspaper article from Bergen, contemporary Norwegian julebukking has moved to New Year’s, and it’s mainly the children who stage what is more and more like the American Halloween.

Wheat woven herds
But there’s little chance the goat will disappear from the Nordic Christmas. Made in varying sizes, from miniature to gigantic, straw goats emerge throughout the land as the jul festival approaches. They decorate trees; they munch away in store windows and Christmas displays throughout the land.

Straw also plays a major role in the centuries of Nordic jul traditions. The last sheaf of grain bundled in the harvest was credited with having magical properties as the spirit of the harvest and was saved for the jul celebrations.

Norwegians decorate their Christmas trees with small straw goats, a product of hvetevefting—wheat weaving. At one time, these miniature figures were thought to ward off evil spirits that abound in history’s mythical Northern skies.

Now they hang suspended from pine boughs and wreaths of holly, sometimes as tiny as an earring, sometimes nearly gigantic. They don’t bleat a word, but they hold centuries of history and the many dramas that abound in the winter solstice setting. It is a starring role that the goat has been playing for many centuries.

Minneapolis-born Judith Gabriel Vinje has been a journalist for nearly 50 years, including a stint as a war correspondent. Now a Los Angeles resident, she started writing for Norway Times in 1998, and has been with the paper through its merges and changes. An active member of Sons of Norway, Edvard Grieg Lodge, Glendale Calif., she is also a member of Odins of Raven, a Viking reenactment group on the West Coast, and writes frequently about Viking Age subjects for several publications.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 16, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.