In old Norse tradition the julebukk (yule goat) was originally the goat that was slaughtered during romjul, the time between Christmas and New Years.
The julebukk became the symbol of the pagan julebukk ritual. It was a spiritual being that dwelled in the house during Christmas, overlooking the preparations and celebrations. It later became personified and during the darkest nights of the year, a man or men from the community dressed in a goat mask and fur cape to represent the ghosts of winter night. They travelled from door-to-door receiving gifts from the towns folk to thank them for protection and keeping the winter ghosts at bay. They also gave warnings, especially to children, to be nice.
When Christianity appeared the pagan rituals of julebukk were replaced by the children’s activity, also called, julebukk, which is very similar to Halloween. Children walked from house-to-house singing carols at the doorsteps of friends and neighbours. They wore costumes, particularly masks to hide their identity, and often gave gifts as well as receiving them. Afterwards the tradition progressed onto serving the poor children in the community. They dressed in costumes and visited the wealthy, singing carols and receiving food or money, so they could also have a happy Christmas.
Some of the elements of today’s Santa Claus seem to come from the traditions of the julebukk such as giving presents, receiving sweet treats, picking out who is naughty and nice and, of course, magic.
Today in Norway:
The figure of the julebukk is used as a Christmas ornament. It is often made out of straw with braided horns and a red ribbon around its neck. Julebukk straw figures are usually placed under the Christmas tree. A popular prank is to smuggle the julebukk into the house of a friend or neighbour and place it somewhere to surprise. Once found, the neighbour must do the same to the next family; and so the julebukk travels from house to house.
In some places in Norway children still dress up and travel door to door singing, but often they are the ones who give out gifts and sweets. Their costumes are usually made of old woolen clothes, likely to symbolize the charitable giving to the poor children in the nordmenn times.
In the west of Norway, it is popular in some small communities for adults to dress up, go door to door and drink to Christmas. The masked julebukk tell funny stories about themselves and the hosts must try to guess who they are. When a julebukk is correctly identified they must take their mask off.
A few facts about julebukk:
It is thought outside of Norway that the activity of going from door to door is called ‘julebukking’, however, in Norway it is called gå julebukk, ‘to go julebukk’.
The treats or sweets given/taken are not lollies and sugary things but baked goods, clementines and nuts. In older times it was usual to share leftovers of Christmas dinner.
You ‘go julebukk’ in old clothes, not expensive costumes and party attire. Christmas in Norway is a time of decadence, however, the julebukk is a charitable act of visiting, giving, singing and being thoughtful of each other.
Sadly, julebukk is slowly fading away because this community tradition is not suited to big city environments. Parents and small children feel more confident going to places where they know the people and in big cities it is less common for neighbours to know each other. The tradition is more common in smaller communities where friends and family live close together, and where communities still socialize with each other.