Julbock: Sweden’s Legendary Yule Goat
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Trimming the Christmas tree is a special time for many people around the world. Memories from childhood are often tenderly tucked away in boxes filled with sentimental ornaments that bring joy to the holidays.
In Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, there’s a popular goat-like figure made of straw and red ribbon usually found under the tree or nestled among the branches. This is the Julbock, which translates into English as “Yule buck” or “Christmas buck,” a symbol of good tidings and cheer.
Seeped in history, the Julbock stems from Norse mythology — ancient fables of the North Germanic peoples (Scandinavians/Nordics) during the Viking Age (790 to 1066 AD). This was a period in time during the Middle Ages when Norsemen know as Vikings raided many parts of Northern Europe and westward toward Greenland and Iceland.
One account centers around the Norse god, Thor, who rode the sky in a golden chariot drawn by two mighty goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. Thor was associated with thunder, lightning, wind, storms, nature, and agriculture. He chose the goats because of his connection with everyday people, especially farmers. The animals have been domesticated well over 10,000 years, providing companionship and valuable products such as milk, meat, and fur.
Both Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr were the perfect pair for a powerful god traveling the sky and land below. Legend has it that Thor regularly slaughtered the goats for food while wielding a fierce-looking hammer known as a Mjölnir. After sharing a hearty meal with others, he raised the same weapon to the sky, resurrecting his faithful companions for another ride through the clouds.
Thor and his goats were always present during the Yuletide — December 21st through the first day of January — protecting homes and farmland, and the promise of spring. Mythology still lives on today; many people in Scandinavia believe the sound of thunder is the rumbling of Thor’s chariot wheels in the sky.
As with any tall tale, various aspects of the plot take on a life of their own. In Scandinavia during the 1600s, the story began to unfold at Christmastime when townsfolk would dress in goatskins draped over dark-hooded cloaks with horns. They would roam the villages, demanding food, pulling pranks, and scaring children, along with many an adult. People protested, calling the Julbock a demon. This was no way to celebrate a Christian holiday — the goat needed to change his ways!
Fortunately, a kinder version of Julbock began to appear each December. People still dressed as goats, but softened their appearance with smiling masks and brighter colors. They traveled door-to-door on Christmas Eve, spreading good cheer and handing out gifts and candies to each household. They would often hide a small straw goat somewhere on the premises, sending little ones into a frenzy with hopes of finding the happy critter before bedtime.
Deck the Halls
Like mistletoe and gingerbread houses (pepparkakshus), the Julbock is an important part of holiday decorations. It’s always hung with care at the front of the Christmas tree for good luck. There’s a significance in being plaited of straw: an old belief that if one takes a sickle and cuts the last sheaf of grain at season’s end, good fortune will bestow the family with next year’s harvest. Forming the ornaments into the shape of a goat honors Thor’s bucks, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr.
Bundled in red ribbon is also symbolic — not only is it a traditional color at Christmas, it’s a favorite choice in decorating, advertising, and daily use in Sweden. Sundays and public holidays (Röda dagar) are marked in red on most calendars, signifying days of rest and celebration.
The Julbock ornaments range in size from that of a tiny thimble to larger stand-alone versions placed by the front door and throughout the house. The largest is Sweden’s Gävle goat erected each December in Castle Square in the town of Gävle, located in the northern province of Norrland. The towering critter stands 42.6 feet and weighs in at three tons, giving it the honor of holding the record of the world’s largest straw goat according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Other straw critters dot the landscape. While not as large as the Gävle goat, the Julbocken at Skansen Open-Air Museum in Stockholm, Sweden are mighty impressive, standing three to five feet tall. They’re part of the festive outdoor decorations at the annual Christmas Market where visitors enjoy shopping and strolling through the museum’s 75 acres that showcase the country’s Nordic customs, craftsmanship, and celebrations of times gone by. One Julbock is always perched on a large boulder, with a handy ladder to reach the top so children can climb on his back for a photo opportunity. Such happy memories!
Winter solstice is a festive time throughput Scandinavia, filled with many traditions and celebrations that bring joy and happiness to young and old. As folks trim the Christmas tree with cherished Julbock ornaments, they enjoy welcoming Julebukkers at the door — neighbors singing carols as they go Julebukking house-to-house. It’s similar to wassailing in Great Britain, an ancient custom of visiting orchards in cider-producing regions of England where growers sipped hot mulled cider and sang to the trees to promote a good harvest for the coming year.
Another favorite part of the holiday in Scandinavia is a visit from Jultomte (Father Christmas). He arrives in two forms: as a familiar-looking Santa Claus dressed in a red suit, and as a gnome-like figure known as Tomte in Sweden and Iceland, Nisse in Norway, and Tomtenisse or Tonttu in Finland.
He’s an enchanting little roly-poly spirit from Nordic folklore — sporting a red knitted cap along with bushy beard — similar in looks to a garden gnome. According to legend, Tomte lives under the barn, guarding the land, and protecting the family and animals from evil and misfortune. When he brings gifts on Christmas Eve, he looks for his favorite food — a bowl of hot steaming julegrøt (rice pudding/porridge) with a dab of butter on top, and an almond hidden inside. Like the Julbock, his presence is always welcome in December, spreading good cheer and reassurance that all’s well as the new year dawns.
Folklore may seem frivolous in today’s world, but for some, there’s comfort in believing goats and gnomes will stop by on Christmas Eve, bearing gifts and well-being to one’s home and family.
God Jul – Merry Christmas to all!
Originally published in the November/December 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.