Let’s go julebukking the old-fashioned way!

It’s time to get your Christmas goat

julebukk

Photo: Vintage Norway / Tumblr
This photo from Vintage Norway on Tumblr shows a group of julebukkers in Norway in the 1930s.

Cynthia Elyce Rubin
Travel Editor
The Norwegian American

Julebukking? Perhaps you never heard the word? It’s an old tradition. Harking back to Norse mythology and paganism, it reminds me of Halloween trick-or-treating. A group in strange dress comes to your house demanding treats.

The significance of goat imagery arises from the mythical Norwegian julebukk or “Yule buck,” a small gift-bearing creature that looks like a goat. Its story begins in Viking times when pagans worshipped the mighty hammer-wielding god Thor, associated with lightning, thunder, and strength. He relentlessly killed his foes in fierce battles, and his chariot pulled by two goats named Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjostr that had been eaten and consequently resurrected by Thor.

In the 12th century, more than 100 years after Norway was “officially” Christianized, Thor was still being invoked by the population, as evidenced by a stick bearing a runic message appealing to Thor for help, discovered among the Bryggen inscriptions, a group of some 670 medieval runic inscriptions on wood and bone found from 1955 in the city Bergen on the west coast.

During pagan celebrations, the goat played a significant role, particularly in pre-Christian Northern Europe. It was a prime source of food in meat and milk and a sacrificial item whose slaughter to the gods promised prosperity. The julebukk—the Christmas goat—dressed in goat skin and carrying a goat head, entered the party and pretended to be sacrificed and “die,” before returning to life after Thor revived him.

As Christianity took hold across Europe, the goat began to morph into the devil and was forbidden by the church. The more entertaining julebukking tradition took hold.

People wore costumes and masks to hide their identities. They changed their voices and body language and often spoke in strange mystical languages. This rowdy crowd demanding food and drink was a mysterious group but would transform and enjoy fellowship with friends.

When introduced by Norwegian immigrants in the United States, this practice was further transformed as singing for alcohol became popular. However, Prohibition, lasting from 1920 to 1933, inhibited the custom.

julebukk

Photo: Vesterheim
While things have changed over the years, the Norwegian tradition of julebukking is alive and well in Decorah, Iowa, home to Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum and Folk Art School.

As Kathleen Stokker writes in her book, Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land, “The function of julebukking has changed over time … Christmas masquerading gave people opportunities for social control and release, while also fostering a renewed commitment to neighbors, family, and friends. Today julebukking provides mostly entertainment but continues to offer group initiation and fellowship.”

While the tradition with its roots in pagan practices has mainly disappeared in Norway, there are still a few outposts, primarily in the Midwest with large Scandinavian populations promoting a zeal to preserve Old Country traditions, especially during Christmas time.

There is a great diversity of practices in communities keeping the tradition alive, however small groups still celebrate julebukking in some form. Vesterheim keeps the spirit alive in Decorah, Iowa.

Our own Assistant Editor Ragnhild Hjeltnes remembers her personal experience as a student at nearby Luther College: “Walking around the museum in these crazy old rags holding a goat head on a stick, I remember thinking, ‘this is so bizarre, this is not how we do julebukking in Norway at all.’ Now, an immigrant myself, I appreciate how we all, as immigrants throughout time, carry our own truths about what is ‘Norwegian,’ and that Vesterheim has been able to preserve something now lost in Norway.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

Cynthia Elyce Rubin

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, PhD., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history. She collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.