Story last updated at 12/23/2009 - 12:19 pm
Petersburg - Petersburg is well known throughout Southeast Alaska for its Norwegian heritage. Vikings and Valkyries are a common sight during the town's Little Norway Festival each May, and another unique Norwegian tradition is celebrated during the Christmas season: julebukking.
Literally translated as "Christmas goating," the practice is thought to have originated in Norway as a pagan tradition in honor of the god Thor and his goat. Early observers would travel from house to house in disguise while carrying a goat's head on a pole. At each house, they would remove their disguises, revealing their true identities while partaking in treats provided by the homeowner. In time, Norwegians have modified the tradition from a pagan ritual to more of a fun tradition resembling the contemporary celebration of American Halloween.
Petersburg is one of only a handful of American communities where julebukking can still be found. Its interpretation has ditched goat heads on sticks. Instead, Petersburg's julebukkers participate in a celebration with local business owners, who offer refreshments to customers in appreciation for their patronage during the year.
Max Warhatch has watched julebukking evolve during the 40 years he has called Petersburg home. His family's business, Rexall Drug, has become famous for its pastrami sandwiches, served for only a few hours each Christmas Eve. Warhatch got the idea for sandwiches as a way to entice his staff not to leave the store early on the day before Christmas. It worked, and by the next year his employees invited their friends to join in the party.
"Pretty soon I had a room full of people," Warhatch said.
The pastrami line has grown every year since and has stretched as far as two and a half blocks depending on weather conditions. Warhatch's daughter, Kate Kowalski, said the line often begins to form long before any sandwiches are ready to be served.
"We've got the system down after 40 years and we can usually get through a lot of people," Kowalski said.
In 2008, they served 875 sandwiches.
"It's just a nice thing that we feel in our hearts," Warhatch said. "My wife (Maxine) and I have done this a long, long time."
This year, they are prepared for the celebration with 230 pounds of pastrami and 70 pounds of Swiss cheese on hand, not to mention lots of mayo and mustard.
"The thing that we get the biggest charge out of is seeing the interaction of people," Warhatch said. "We're a small town but we go zipping past each other all year long. You see people that you know haven't talked to each other since last time they were in the pastrami line."
Lee's Clothing, another julebukking business, held their celebration on the 22nd this year, serving homemade pickled herring, smoked salmon, Norwegian cookies and other refreshments. Other businesses plan their celebrations on various days of the week so as not to overlap.
Heidi Lee of Lee's Clothing echoed Warhatch's sentiments-the food is good, but the best thing about julebukking is the community interaction it creates, she said.
"My favorite part is the college kids that come back," Lee said. "That's their time to meet each other. I can't believe everybody doesn't do it."
Libby Sterling may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.