Tracing the origins of joulupukki

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

I had an “Aha!” moment the other day when I was reading the Word of the day where brilliant folks at Merriam-Webster daily deliver an explanation of one delicious English word after another. Reading that one particular explanation literally made me stare into the distance for the next fifteen minutes. Everything around me came to a standstill. It was exceptional in that it helped me uncover part of a riddle that had me puzzled for a long time.

For quite some time now I have been scratching my head about the origin of the word joulupukki, the Finnish word for Father Christmas. The literal meaning of the word is rather straightforward, albeit rather peculiar. Joulupukki is a compound word consisting words joulu (Christmas) and pukki (goat). Christmas goat? But why Christmas goat?

As Wikipedia these days provides an answer to almost any question, they had that covered too. The article explains the origin of goat (pukki) in the word joulupukki by referring to a “tradition of men dressed in goat’s clothes called nuuttipukki [who] used to go around from house to house after Christmas eating leftover food.” I have also checked the Finnish etymological dictionary which traces the origin of word pukki to bock, Swedish for billy goat.

Although Father Christmas is incomparably more popular, the nuuttipukki tradition is supposedly still alive in the Finnish regions of Satakunta and Pohjanmaa, according to another Wikipedia entry. Never mind that nuuttipukki does the opposite of what joulupukki does: kids today dress up and go singing from house to house hoping to receive candy and pocket money in exchange. A Halloween of sorts, only two months later.

Back to Merriam-Webster and their Word of the day that started it all. Folks at Merriam-Webster reveal that an English adjective puckish originates in medieval England from word puke (also pouke) meaning a nasty hobgoblin, an evil spirit, a demon. However, both puke and pouke are related to the Old Norse word puki, meaning devil. Since Finnish did loan words from Old Norse, I wouldn’t be surprised if Old Norse puki was Finnishized into pukki and  Christmas goat afterall isn’t really a Christmas goat, but rather a Christmas goblin, elf, sprite, fairy, puck, demon, or imp. Something that the makers of Rare Exports Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 understood very well.


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