The Swedish Christmas Goat

Gävle’s Version of the Yule Log?


Julbocken in Gävle, Sweden, 2009

Gävlebocken in 2009, in similar weather conditions to today. Photo by Tony Nordin. Used under CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

This story has been updated at the end, to reflect the Christmas goat’s fate in 2012.

Since Advent began, I have engaged in what has been one of my seasonal practices for six years: the daily check via Web camera to reassure myself that the giant straw Swedish Christmas goat in Gävle still stands.

Happily, today it does – well blanketed with snow, and soon to get more.

My goat-stalking activity had a short life span last year. By the evening of December 2, 2011, Gävlebocken had been reduced to ashes. This year’s existence almost was shorter, as no sooner was the goat up on Saturday, December 1, than two individuals doused its legs with petrol and attempted to set it alight.


IKEA’s beloved Christmas goat

U.S. shoppers who have entered IKEA in the holiday season have seen a Yule goat (julbock), even if it hasn’t occurred to them to ask why Swedes decorate with straw goats at Christmas. And in fact, the origins of a goat as a Christmas symbol are not easy to pinpoint. Beggar for gifts, bringer of gifts, inspector of Christmas preparations, terrorist to children – the julbock has played all roles.

Nowadays, in Gävle, the poor creature auditions annually as a Yule log. Since the town erected its first julbock in 1966, the goat has burned down 23 times – including the year it was erected – and has been hit by a car once, sabotaged or otherwise destroyed three times. In 2010, two men attempted to bribe a security guard so that they could kidnap Gävlebocken by helicopter. Fire repellant, security guards, and Web cameras have not noticeably decreased attempts on the goat (it is not legal to burn it, nor do most residents or the merchants who erect it sanction it). Interference by volunteers and passersby has been the best defense, as played out this year.

Attacks on the goat have extended beyond the Sweden’s borders. While browsing through a Norwegian “true confessions” book in the mall at Vinterbro, Akershus, in 2008, I discovered one of the confessions to be “I burned the goat at Gävle.” Whether this was the same Norwegian arrested in 1995 for attempting to burn Gävlebocken, I cannot say. What is known – and still gleefully reported in the Norwegian press – is that an American tourist from Ohio numbers among those to set fire to the goat. He claimed he thought it was tradition.

Well, it is of a sort – kind of like liquor store robberies in the United States. Though I think we’re still waiting on that defense.

How did this “firing of the julbock” develop? For that matter, why a goat at Christmas? Understanding the latter may illuminate the former.

Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, Thor's goats

Thor’s goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnóstr, as Thor discovers one lamed by a peasant with whom he shared their meat. Illustration by Lorenz Frølich (1895).

Christianity took time to settle into Scandinavia, and about when it was finally established, Icelandic historian and politician Snorri Sturluson compiled a collection of Norse mythology and verse known as the Edda. In this account appear two apparently ill-tempered goats – Tanngrisnir, or “Teeth Barer,” and Tanngnjóstr, “Teeth Grinder” – who pull the god Thor’s chariot.

It is no wonder they have nasty humors: Thor cooks them for his dinner. He resurrects them with his hammer afterward, and they drive him around when they don’t make up the entrée du jour.

No one can say for certain if Thor’s goats were incorporated into Christianity to become the julbock (julebukk in Norway, joulupukki in Finnish), but Tanngrisnir’s and Tanngnjóstr’s resurrectional tendencies and the early character of the goat as festival sacrifice suggest a connection. Among many animal sacrifices, Vikings are said to have slaughtered a goat when sacrificing to Thor, and they sacrificed a pig to the fertility goddess Freyja for the midwinter festival of Yule (jól in Old Norse). This pagan holiday Christianity co-opted for the birth of Jesus, though it never succeeded in erasing the old name from Scandinavian language for the season. At the darkest point of the year, it would not be unreasonable to associate the sun’s gradual return with the renewing qualities of goats.

Swedish Christmas goat

Swedish Yule goat, in a 1912 illustration by John Bauer

After Christianity took root, figures of the goat remained in the region as haunting characters in the inhabitants’ lives. The Finnish Yule goat scared children and demanded gifts for the holiday, while elsewhere in Scandinavia, the goat seems to have been something of a seasonal perfection investigator, making sure families had prepared correctly for the holiday.

Gradually, the Yule goat evolved into a festive beggar for gifts, rather than a coercive entity, in practices such as julebukking in Norway. Similar to English (and Philadelphian) Christmas season mumming and the Irish wren boys, as well as to the Samhain/All Souls’ practice of souling and contemporary Halloween trick-or-treating, to go julebukking involves dressing in costumes – originally, skins and animal masks, usually featuring a goat’s head in the mix – and performing pranks or hijinks at neighbors’ houses until they have guessed the identity of the julebukker (after which, they are invited in for coffee and treats). According to Kathleen Stokker’s Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land, among other sources, the practice continues in some parts of Norway as well as in Scandinavian-descended areas of the United States.

The julebukk itself also has prankster associations, as a Scandinavian custom has been to put one in a neighbor’s house for him or her to find. The neighbor is then supposed to do the same to another neighbor, and it passes down the line in the whole community.

Father Christmas on goat

Folktale illustration of Father Christmas on a goat

In the 1800s, the julbock/julebukk enjoyed a relatively brief career as the bringer of Christmas loot before being replaced by the jultomte in Sweden and the julenisse in Norway – variations on Father Christmas or Santa Claus that have grown in resemblance to that figure over years of reproduction, global cultural influence, and marketing. (Finland, interestingly, retains the name Joulupukki.) The Christmas goat has remained in tradition chiefly as an ornament, though some of the old antics follow him.

The pagan origins of julbocken and the tradition of mischief associated with it may well have something to do with why Scandinavians make such regular efforts to burn the Christmas goat in Gävle (and other Yule goats erected in Swedish cities). The spirit certainly motivates the practice, but in the post-Enlightenment age, that is hardly likely to stand up well in court. Still, as the early Christians discovered in trying to eliminate pagan elements from church holidays, traditions have a life of their own – one not easily regulated.

The spirit of the marketing age is to make money off of them where possible – which is how Gävlebocken got his start, when advertising consultant Stig Gavlén thought to attract more customers to shops and restaurants with the holiday attraction. That, it certainly has become. For those who cannot visit the goat, whatever their intent, its Webcam, blog (in both Swedish and English), and Twitter posts spread its celebrity worldwide – even more than reports of its all too frequent sacrifice.

It even has its own app.

But I can’t leave the goat to its celebrity without noting one odd thing (if the rest wasn’t enough). You see, I like mysteries. And in researching its history, I learned that the construction of Gävlebocken fell to Stig’s brother Jörgen.

He happened to be chief of the town fire department.

UPDATE – 13/12/12
Shortly before midnight in Sweden on 12 December 2012, Gävlebocken again met a fiery fate for the Yuletide season. This morning’s Webcam shot reveals a scorched frame for the holidays. Swedish news relayed the Webcam video for those hours, documenting a spectacular conflagration.

In some previous years, the town replaced the goat before Christmas, but the practice has become cost-prohibitive. According to the Swedish newspaper Expressen, the town is debating whether next year will be Gävlebocken’s last.

Three people are sought for the arson. The goat’s final blog entry provides contact information for anyone who may have spotted the culprits.