By KRISTEN PARROTT | Vernon County Museum curator
This week between Christmas and New Year’s is the traditional time for julebukking. A Norwegian word, “julebukk” literally means “Yule buck” or “Christmas goat.” The Dictionary of American Regional English defines a julebukk as a “masked and costumed person who goes from door to door between Christmas and New Year’s seeking treats of food and drink.” The dictionary points out that this term is used in Norwegian settlement areas of Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota.
Julebukking was once common in the Norwegian communities of Vernon County. Many older folks fondly remember this tradition. In the evening, groups of adults would put on complete disguises and visit nearby homes. The neighbors would try to guess who was under the disguises, and once the masks were off, everyone would enjoy special treats.
As with all traditions, julebukking has many variations. Some Vernon County residents remember the julebukk season as one week; others, as two weeks. In some communities, the traditional disguises featured men dressed as women and women as men. Sometimes, the evening ended with music and dancing at one of the homes.
You might have heard of similar traditions from other cultures. The custom of mumming, or mummering, originated in Britain and later spread to Canada. Mummers, like julebukkers, dress in costume and go door-to-door at this time of year, singing and playing music, and then eating treats.
England also has a tradition of “yulesinging,” or “wassailing.” Again, these wassailers go visiting at their neighbors’ homes, singing and eating. Our American tradition of caroling is related to wassailing, with the same elements of neighbors, music, food and the Christmas season. (The practice of dressing up in costume is absent from these two traditions.)
Even the Spanish and Latin American custom of Las Posadas has a few aspects in common with julebukking. In the days before Christmas, participants in Las Posadas dress as the characters in the Christmas story and go in solemn procession to neighboring homes. After singing at several houses, they are welcomed inside the final home for a party. Note that Las Posadas is very much a religious festival, but the other customs mentioned here are more secular.
All of these traditions have different origins, but it’s interesting to see how they ended up with some of the same characteristics. People everywhere want to visit and sing and dress up and eat special foods and generally have a good time at Christmas.
Have you ever been julebukking? Does anyone in Vernon County go julebukking today? Watch out your window in the coming days for a rowdy band of masked Norwegians.
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The Vernon County Museum, 410 S. Center Ave., Viroqua, can be reached at 637-7396 or vernoncountyhistoricalsociety.org.