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John Lamb, Published December 23 2010

Christmas creepers

Tomorrow night, kids will try to fight sleep and stay up to see Santa Claus.

Years ago, however, kids on the Northern Plains looked and waited for Christkindl, but dreaded a visit from the Belznickel or cowered from masked julebokers.

Both Norwegians and Germans (the two largest ethnic groups in our region) share traditions known as mumming, during which people wear costumes to celebrate a holiday.

“When people think of dressing up and going house to house, they think of Halloween,” says Tim Kloberdanz, a folklorist and professor emeritus in anthropology at North Dakota State University. “Oh, not in the old northern European tradition. When you got dressed up and went from house to house and got goodies and things like that, that was during the 12 days of Christmas.”

Kloberdanz and North Dakota Council on the Arts folklorist Troyd A. Geist explore such seasonal celebrations in their recently published compilation “Sundogs and Sunflowers: Folklore and Folk Arts of the Northern Great Plains.”

Kloberdanz grew up with the German/Russian traditions of Belznickel and Christkindl, though Geist has heard of a Polish Belznickel called “Jack.”

The Belznickel, or “furred Nicholas,” is “kind of like a St. Nicholas figure but often with some horns and chains and a switch. Very rough, very gruff,” Kloberdanz says.

In 1985, a “Sundogs and Sunflowers” contributor from Moorhead (names are not given in the book) recalled sitting in a grandfather’s barn around Christmas with a small fire as the only light.

“Then this creature, the Belznickel, would enter the barn. It had a human body but wore goat’s horns with the face all blackened.”

The creature warmed its hands by the fire but stared at the children before leaving without a word.

“My dad said they used to do that to keep the kids in line,” the person concluded.

While the Belznickel was there to scare kids straight, the Christkindl was the gift-giver. Though Christkindl translates to “Christ child,” “it would be unthinkable for that individual to be (portrayed by) anything but a female,” Kloberdanz says.

One contributor even recalls the Belznickel and Christkindl traveling together on Christmas Eve, as a kind of good cop/bad cop.

“You would hear the chains being drug around the house by the Belznickel. He would try to get in the door, but the parents would bolt the door to keep him out,” remembered a contributor from Rugby, N.D., in 1984.

“The Christkindl would get in and leave toys or whatever. If you were bad, on the other hand, the Belznickel would come back and get your gifts. You would be scared all night, worried the Belznickel might come back. If the Belznickel got in before the Christkindl, he would drag you out and chain you to the fence … Christmas morning, all the kids would go outside to see the marks the Belznickel had left on the house and in the yard.”

By contrast, the Norwegian tradition of julebukking/juleboking, or “Christmas foolery,” was more like a game.

A group of revelers would dress up, completely disguising their appearance and voices. They would carol from house to house, and residents would try to guess their identities. If they were identified, the revelers unmasked and enjoyed food and drinks.

“We would travel to the neighboring farms in wagons or trucks,” recalled one person from Portland, N.D., in 1987. “People would try and guess who we were. After this we would eat, play cards and dance until late in the evening.”

“One of the problems doing this was getting picked up by police,” Kloberdanz says. “You can imagine, what does a policeman who has never heard of julebokers or mummers, what does he make of this? They’re all in masks and there may be a smell of alcohol.”

Shirley Goos Hayer, formerly of Fargo, remembers a scary encounter with julebokers when she returned from college to her parents’ farm outside Mahnomen, Minn., 25 years ago.

She was the last person up one night when she heard cars approach the home. She looked out the window and saw two cars with lights turned out stop. Groups of men emerged wearing masks or nylons over their faces and approached the house.

“It was like the set-up for some crazy scene out of a horror movie – we were surrounded,” she recalls.

She raced to wake up her parents, telling them not to let the men in, but her father answered the door. The men pushed him aside and stumbled into the kitchen demanding drinks.

“After being reassured by the ‘adults’ that this was a Scandinavian holiday tradition, (the julebokers) had their drinks, sang a thank-you carol, filed back into their cars and left,” Goos Hayer says. “I was awake the rest of the night with a super supply of adrenaline.”

Jessica Rau, formerly of Fargo, remembers kinder, gentler juleboking experiences when her family celebrated Christmas in Wyndmere, N.D., with her Norwegian relatives.

“Usually they would only get as creative as using paper bags and, maybe if they were feeling creative and hadn’t had too much eggnog, they would wear each other’s clothing,” she says, adding that one doctor in the family always wore scrubs. “I’m pretty sure they just wanted to get to the free cocktails and food faster.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533