DeFlip Side #120: Joulupukki, the Yule Goat


Welcome everyone, I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

And for this year’s Christmas show let’s head to the most Christmasy place on the planet, Finland. Christmas tourism is a huge business in Finland, replete as it is with reindeer and northern lights. But there’s also plenty of northern darkness, and the long winters that predated the arrival of Christianity and our modern Christmas were once the scene of many disturbing pagan Yule rituals that the Finnish tourism board probably doesn’t want you to know about.

Yet those rituals have stayed with us, a bizarre admixture of pagan folklore and modern tradition. And no tradition is more bizarre than that of the Finnish Santa, Joulupukki. Jolly old Joulupukki is now synonymous with St. Nicholas, but when he first hit the scene way back in ancient times, he wasn’t at all jolly. In fact, he wasn’t even human. Joulupukki translates literally as Yule Goat. So how did a pagan goat turn into the Finnish Santa? See, and I bet you thought I’d run out of weird Christmas stuff to talk about.

The tradition of the Yule Goat probably springs from Norse mythology, and the two goats that pulled Thor’s chariot across the heavens. Every night Thor would strike the goats down with his hammer and feast on them, and in the morning use the hammer to revive the beasts so they could resume their toils. In honor of Thor’s badassery, ritual goat sacrifice became part of the year end Yule celebrations.

But somewhere along the line the Yule Goat managed to turn the tables, and morphed from a poor sacrificial beast into a terrifying man-sized goat creature that would wander the night, going from home to home, tormenting and threatening children while demanding offerings of food and gifts.

This is undoubtedly the same twisted lore that gave rise to the Krampus, a goat-horned black demon that accompanies Santa in many Northern traditions, punishing bad children by flaying them with a cane and carrying them off in a sack.

Subsequent traditions, including some in early 20th Century America, twisted the Yule Goat lore even further, transforming the Krampus into the Knecht Ruprecht, who’s also known as Black Pete. You can hear more about Black Pete in my 2004 Christmas show, The Dark Side of the Claus.  But Pete has Joulupukki to thank for his existence. And though the legend of the Yule Goat has traveled far and wide, it never left Finland.

People incorporated the goat into Finnish Christmas celebrations, imitating Joulupukki by dressing up in skins and tree-bark masks—ostensibly to ward off evil spirits, but really to go from door to door demanding leftover food and—more importantly—booze; Christmas plays feature people dressed up as goats being symbolically slaughtered, only to jump up at the end, magically resurrected. And Yule Goats are still popular Christmas ornaments in Finland, both little ones that hang on the tree and giant straw Yule Goats displayed in town centers—which locals burn at the end of the holiday season. So apparently those sacrifices to Thor are still going on.

But in the course of all this the word Joulupukki became divorced from its goatly etymology, and was appropriated by a certain red-coated gift giver. Joulupukki is now Santa Claus, and though no one can pinpoint the exact time or cause of the transition, people in Finland now embrace the once menacing goat as the loving embodiment of the spirit of Christmas. So much so that the northern town of Rovaniemi in the Lapland region of Finland claims to be Santa’s hometown, offering five-hour Santa safaris complete with reindeer sled rides. And local folk tradition has shifted the location of Santa’s workshop from the North Pole to the nearby mountain of Korvatunturi.

So both Joulupukki and the Yule Goat are still alive and well in Finland, the twain apparently destined to never meet again. But not so fast!

In the best thing to happen to Christmas films since It’s A Wonderful Life, Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander once again merges Joulupukki with his inner goat in his fantastic movie, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.

Rare Exports opens with an excavation team hard at work atop Korvatunturi, digging up a huge block of ice buried deep in the mountain. Pietari, a boy from a nearby reindeer herding village, witnesses the blasts. Soon after, the herders discover that their reindeer have been slaughtered and blame the excavation team. But when Pietari finds footprints of bare feet in the bloody snow, he realizes that the excavation team has discovered the burial site for the real Santa Claus.

Pietari then embarks on a frenzy of research into a bunch of old books (books that I would kill to own, though they’re apparently just lying around his house) recounting the real history of Joulupukki: the goat-horned Santa of old who abducts and eats children. Soon the village kids disappear, and terrified Pietari knows that Joulupukki is back.

The movie then spirals out from there in weird, wild, unexpected twists, embracing all the darkness inherent in the Joulupukki myth and wrapping it up in a gritty, gristly holiday package. But this isn’t murderous Santa schlock. Rare Exports is an instant holiday classic for adults, a twisted Christmas fantasy that beats with a sincere and darkly humorous heart.

The movie also serves as a prequel of sorts for two short Christmas films—also titled Rare Exports—that director Jalmari Helander made as holiday gifts for clients of his commercial production company. But the videos went viral, eventually earning accolades in film festivals. And just like that, the Yule Goat went Hollywood.

You can watch these short films below, and click on the Amazon link to get your own copy of the Rare Exports feature film.

Trust me on this one and watch the movie. It’s the most fun you’ll have this holiday season—short of sacrificing a goat.

Merry Christmas!


Rare Exports Inc. (Film Short 1)

Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions (Film Short 2)