Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A julbuk in the narthex of the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

A julbuk (YOOL-buck) is a Scandinavian Christmas tradition. In Norse pagan lore, the god Odin drove across the night sky on Yuletide in a sleigh pulled by two giant goats. Children would leave hay and feed in their boots, and put these boots by the chimney. The goats would stop and eat, and Odin would reward the children with presents. (This has transformed today into leaving cookies and milk for Santa Claus; Santa driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer; and Christmas stockings.)

Scandinavians traditionally make a straw goat ("julbuk," or "Christmas goat") each year and display it in the house or as Christmas tree ornaments.

This particular julbuk is a reindeer, not a goat -- and it features a red holly berry for a nose (like Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer).

The display features holly, another pagan tradition. The Norse and Celtic druids associated holly with Yuletide. Yule was when the "curtain between this world and the world of the dead" broke down, allowing ghosts to visit their loved ones. (This is why Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" features ghosts.) But it also allowed evil spirits through. Hanging prickly holly around windows and over doors kept these evil spirits away. Holly was also a male fertility symbol, and was supposed to bring good luck and spiritual protection. (Ivy was the female counterpart.) Holly also maintained its deep green color and produced red berries, which looked nice against bland snowy wintry landscapes.

Christians adopted holly as symbolic of Jesus Christ. The prickly leaves mimicked Jesus' crown of thorns, and the red berries his blood shed for sinners.

Julbuk 01 - Narthex - National Cathedral - DC

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