Audrey Solheim of Manfred recalls with affection the winter evenings decades ago when unruly gangs of revelers roamed the countryside. She writes, “In the Manfred area, the Julebukks came sometime between Christmas and New Years. We would dress up in unrecognizable costumes and sing our favorite song, ‘The Julebukk Song.’ Treats were given at each house and we tried to keep our identities a secret until people guessed who we were.”
It was common for Julebukkers to sing carols as they proceeded through the neighborhood, but the Manfred folks had their own Julebukking song composed by Laverne Johnson to the tune of “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.”
We are the Christmas Fools,
We don’t believe in schools;
We are the Julebukks;
Just dig our crazy looks!
We’re out to have some fun,
Then we’ll be on the run,
But we just came to say,
“Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!”
By now you may be wondering what the heck I’m talking about, and what is a Julebukk? It’s a Christmas goat, a traditional figure grafted into Christian ritual from pre-Christian times by ancestors of the Swedes and Norwegians. Julebukkers were holiday revelers, similar to mummers in the British Isles, who in this case carried with them a carved goat’s head on a stick.
Julebukkers might be children, or family groups, or young folks paired up as couples or not, or, worst of all, bunches of bachelors who, if not treated hospitably, played pranks on those who refused to play along. Julebukkers dressed outlandishly, often reversing genders, turning clothes inside-out, going out in nightwear, or in other ways flaunting convention. They work masks and disguised their voices. Alcohol often was involved in Julebukking traditions. Kathleen Stokker includes in her book of Norwegian-American traditions, Keeping Christmas, a fine chapter on Julebukking. Here in North Dakota, Tim Kloberdanz and Troyd Geist have collected some Julebakking traditions into their book of folklore, Sundogs and Sunflowers.
The best single description of the old-time custom comes to us from Aagot Raaen, the daughter of Norwegian homesteaders near Hattan and author of the book, Grass of the Earth. She says it was forbidden to Julebukk on Christmas Eve, but it continued after that through New Year’s Eve. She recounts a children’s Julebukking venture one New Year’s Eve in the 1880s.
The Raaen kids and those of a neighbor family got together and dressed themselves up in appropriately inappropriate outfits, with special attention to masks. Aagot’s brother Tosten, for instance, was put into a dress and his head covered with a flour-sack mask, with bright red lips sewn on. Sister Kjersten was fixed up, she said, “so they would think I was a boy dressed as a girl”—an attempt at double-crossdressing!
The kids proceeded to the home of kindly neighbors, knocking one another down and dogpiling in the snow as they went. On arrival, they observed the usual rituals: acting ornery until they were recognized and called out, and then whipping off their masks and behaving, upon which they received treats, followed by a long evening of games.
Somewhere in North Dakota, someone has a Julebukk on a stick, and perhaps has forgotten what it was for. Perhaps, too, some miscreants this winter will venture out to terrorize their neighbors in the old-fashioned way. I rather hope so; I’d love to hear about it. Or, if they happen to show up on my porch, I’ll pull a bottle of Aquavit out of the snowbank.