Coming together for Julebukking

I thought it was normal. The week before Christmas, when school is out and friends and family have come to town, stores transform for a few hours as we go julebukking.

 

We pronounce it “YOO-le-bukk-ing,” and stuff ourselves with food while catching up with everyone else. A typical julebukking spread includes a buffet of baked goods, seafood, veggie trays and beverages. Smoked salmon and Norwegian baked goods such as lefse (lef-sa) and krumkake (krUm-ka-ka) are a traditional favorite.

The businesses host the feast as a way of thanking the community for another year of patronage. At Lee’s Clothing, Roxy Lee and her family served food to 450 people last season, including ten quarts of her son-in-law Sig Mathisen’s pickled herring.

Lee moved to Petersburg in 1947. That Christmas Eve, she joined a progression of families as they went visiting friends around town, arriving at a house for a drink and some food before that family joined the crowd as they moved to the next.

“I was new to town and didn’t really know anyone yet. So to go from house to house like that, oh it was just great fun,” Lee recounts.

For those preparing to hunker down for winter, julebukking was a festive distraction after a long year.

It eventually outgrew the living rooms of Petersburg as the community’s population bloomed and diversified. Ethel Bergmann brought the tradition to her store, The Star, in the 1950’s. Patrons would visit her in the back for a sip and a bite to eat. Eventually Emily Martens started it at the bank, then the two grocery stores (Hammer and Wikan and Trading Union) joined the fun.

Over the decades, subtle shifts brought food out of the back room and into the front for all the customers, and it soon spread to practically every store in town. Now it often runs for more than five days, with a printed schedule in the newspaper and revelers spanning the stretch of downtown. The bars have gotten in on the act and more children have joined the lines, so most stores have eschewed the alcoholic punch. Officially, at least.

Over the years, some locations have become known for a particular dish and with each dish comes a story. As Erica Worhatch remembers, her father Max got his food idea from the pharmacy he co-owned in Ohio. They would serve pastrami sandwiches at their end-of-year party. So when he bought Rexall Drugstore and they started to participate in julebukking he decided to keep it going.

Now, ever since 1969, our local drug store hands out pastrami sandwiches on Christmas Eve. Last year they handed out over 1,000 sandwiches free to the public. The line snakes through the aisles and out into the sidewalk, making it the perfect opportunity for visiting friends and scanning the store.

As Ruby Shumway said, “It’s my favorite time to come home. Seeing everyone downtown, sharing stories from the year, hugging lifetime friends, and eating the most delicious food — can’t beat it.”

Anyone who has experienced the Petersburg holiday season knows to arrive with plenty of time before Christmas. Though if you arrive that week, you may luck out and walk off the plane to find shrimp in the buffet line at the airport.

Julebukking was just a part of my childhood, and I was always told it was Norwegian. But just how Norwegian was it, really?

Curious about its history, I turned to “Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land,” by Kathleen Stokker. It turns out not only do we pronounce it incorrectly (It should be “YULE-book-er”), I had somehow never learned its literal translation: Christmas goats. Turns out, when children and frisky adults “went julebukk” they would wear a goat mask or some other costume to visit friends and neighbors.

The tradition eventually faded as the Norwegian immigrant communities dispersed. Whatever the reason for the drop in participation was — the breakup of many Norwegian immigrant communities, the disapproval of the church around a pagan holdover, or simply a sign of the changing times — many communities found their own way to keep the spirit alive.

The way it’s morphed over the years on Mitkof Island is unique. Our version still includes a good amount of merriment, particularly from certain batches of “Moose Milk” that can knock a full-size adult to the floor if they aren’t careful. (One anonymous elder recounted the time they accidentally had three full glasses and had to be carried home.) But the role the tradition serves in connecting the community to its local businesses is crucial, as catalogues and online shopping loom above a still-thriving downtown.

In uncertain times, pulling together around the winter solstice brings the community strength when it needs it. It was best explained by someone who grew up in Petersburg and has since moved south, Gypsy Walukones, who said, “Along with the hugs and the cheer, I remember how seeing so many familiar people at once always made me think of the year’s local tragedies and triumphs.”

This is feeling particularly true in 2016. In a town of 3,000, any loss will affect the town, but the past year seemed particularly tough for Petersburg as we said goodbye to forceful personalities who called this island home. Max Worhatch, the man who brought us our pastrami sandwiches, passed away suddenly, surrounded by his family. As did Al Dwyer, former mayor and volunteer radio show host, and Ruth Sandvik, librarian and consummate supporter of the arts, who passed away at 100.

In a typical year that would be more than enough tragedy to lament. But in 2016 we saw the loss of too many young people connected to our town. Brothers and sisters, children and friends. Each loss seemed to compound onto the next. And now the holiday season brings many of those most affected out into the crowd, to share laughs, tears and plates of smoked seafood.

As the year draws to a close, we pull out our sweaters and head into the cold together. New significant others are introduced to town. Returning students and young adults tell everyone what they’re up to, and we ask about the ones who haven’t come back. The elder care homes host events and visitors fill their halls. Our regular social circles shift, as we introduce visitors and newcomers while making small talk with the neighbor we somehow never see. Eventually the flurry of activity passes and we settle in together. Hopefully with a few more good stories to share next year.

• Chelsea Tremblay lives, writes and sells books in Petersburg. Visit her at ofpeopleandplaces.net.

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