Julebukk or yak?

Is the Norwegian Julebukk, or “Christmas Goat,” actually a Tibetan yak?

Image: John Albert Bauer, first published 1912
“Christmas Goat” carrying presents.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

One of the oldest surviving characters in the legends of Christmas is the Julebukk (“Christmas Goat”) of Norway, known as Julbock 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 came to mean a person who leads 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, the Norwegian equivalent of Santa Claus. Today the Julenisse and Santa Claus have taken over present-bringing, and the Julebukk is relegated to historical legend.

The most prevalent embodiment of that legend is Julbock, a 1912 watercolor painting by Swedish artist John Albert Bauer, depicting a Julenisse riding on top of an enormous load of presents carried by a yak. Bauer left no record of why he chose a yak as the Christmas present beast of burden, but the history of the era before the era before World War I suggests an explanation.

For the first time, travel had become readily available, enabled by steamships on the seas and trains drawn by steam locomotives on land. The travelogue became a prominent genre of literature, as travelers returned home to describe and depict what they had experienced afar. Hence, it seems likely Bauer may well have learned about yaks, the enormous goat-like animals of mountains afar, from sketches in travelogues.

In Tibet, where they are most numerous, yaks are an essential part of everyday life, much as the American bison, or buffalo, was for Native Americans. The yak sustains life, because it provides meat and milk. Its wool is used to make coats, and its dung is the only local fuel. It can carry enormous loads, endure icy storms, live in thin air, and exist on sparse grazing. People early understood these advantages of the yak; in 850 BCE, its domestication was mentioned in the texts of the Zhou dynasty of ancient China.

That historical fact reflects an enigma of genetics, which provides no satisfactory scientific explanation for the domestication of the wild yak. But there’s a plausible explanation. In 2017, geneticists found a 1.3% common cattle component in the genome of the domestic yak. So crossbreeding in the distant past might have enabled hybridization. But all modern attempts at cow-yak hybridization have produced sterile individuals. So the enigma remains unresolved.

That adds a dash of the ethereal to Bauer’s Julbock painting, which clearly is of a yak, five times or more larger than a goat. Is the Julebukk a “Christmas Yak?”

 

Further reading: Of goats and reindeer: Nordic connections in Christmas stories, Norwegian American, Dec. 18, 2015.

 

This article originally appeared in the December 13, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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