Christmas Fools | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Christmas Fools

Jan 2, 2021


I do not think we will see them this year--the Julebukkers, I mean--not only because of the current pandemic conditions but also because the custom of Julebukking has pretty well died out.


Time was, though, when on winter nights around Christmas and New Years, the Julebuks, or Christmas fools as they often were called, roamed the countryside in search of food and fun. Jolly gangs comprising mainly young folks masked and disguised themselves in ridiculous get-ups--often in gender-bending fashion--and presented themselves in the doorways of their neighbors, singing and cracking jokes. This was a custom common in Nordic settlements.


Often the Christmas fools carried a straw goat’s head--the traditional Julebuk--on a stick. Fair amounts of alcohol might have been involved. People had to feed the fools to make them go away.


I first wrote about the Christmas fools in 2012, after Audrey Solheim of Manfred told me her experiences as a Julebukker. Now, as more source material comes online, I have a better handle on the prevalence of Julebukking.


I learn, too, that not everyone approved of the practice. In 1897 a grumpy correspondent who signed himself only as “Ole” wrote the editor of the Brookings Register to disparage “a certain class of our young people” who were “disguising themselves and going to the neighbors, passing under the name of ‘Jule-boks.’” “Crazy-boks,” Ole thought they should be called. Evidently they were doing a few pranks on people’s property that required cleaning up the morning after.


Decades later, in 1920, a citizen of Bowbells penned a sour letter to the editor reporting, “Christmas fools were around recently. That is a custom we can well do without, and we see no reason why such foolishness should be connected with the anniversary of our savior’s birth.”


Generally, however, the public comment conveyed bemusement and even approval. A report from Christine in 1906 seemed disappointed to say there were only “rare instances” of Julebukking locally. A correspondent in Sheyenne two years later noted with satisfaction the “Julebuks have been out this season visiting people in their funny dresses and masks.” The same year the editor in Langdon remarked that the Christmas fools had called on many households, but commented, “Too bad they didn’t visit all. Hope they will next year.”


“The old Scandinavian custom of Julebokking was carried out in Finley during the past holiday season,” wrote the editor of the Hope Pioneer with approval in 1933. “Dressed in gay costumes a group of people set out to call on their friends. Christmas carols are sung and the members are invited in at the homes they visit, for food and drink.”


Compiling such reports from across the countryside allows me to make a few generalizations. First, Julebukking was widespread, but not universal. It was confined to Nordic communities, and local Anglo-American editors sometimes took pains to explain the custom was harmless and amusing. Second, Julebukking was mostly an amusement of country folk; it commonly was reported not in the main news section of a country-town paper but in the locals, that is, the reports from rural correspondents.


Third, the Christmas fools made the transition from horsepower, travel by wagon or cutter, into the automotive age. Indeed, travel by auto likely propelled Julebukking into its heyday. And finally, although there were jolly and nostalgic echoes into the late twentieth century, Julebukking seems to have dwindled in the 1940s; I suspect gas rationing may have played a role in this. 


Nevertheless--how about we give it a try next year? I’ll remind you in case you forget.


-Tom Isern