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CHRISTMAS

#SwedishChristmas: How the julbock went from demonic creature to straw figure

Every day until Christmas Eve, The Local explains the unique history behind Swedish Christmas traditions in our own Advent calendar.

#SwedishChristmas: How the julbock went from demonic creature to straw figure
Now mostly a nice Christmas decoration, the julbock was once considered demonic. Photo: Mats Åstrand/TT

This article is available to Members of The Local. Read more articles for Members here.

These days, the julbock (Christmas goat) is mainly a popular piece of holiday décor fashioned out of straw that gets global media coverage when a giant version, the Gävle goat, is inevitably set ablaze by arsonists.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the julbock's popularity as a symbol of Swedish Christmas, the rich history and multitude of meanings that have made it a symbol are often overlooked.  


You may see these in plenty of Swedish homes around Christmastime. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Like Sweden's Lucia tradition and the jultomte, the earliest roots of the julbock go back to pagan traditions.

One school of thought takes the origin story of the julbock back to the Norse god Thor, who rode a chariot pulled by two goats. Author Sue Weaver offers an engaging description of how this tradition was adapted in Sweden: “…as part of an ancient midwinter celebration called the juleoffer ('Yule sacrifice'), a man dressed in goatskins and carrying a goat-head effigy portrayed one of Thor's goats. He was symbolically killed but returned to life exactly as the sun does at Yule. Early Christian fathers, however, were not pleased with this pagan spectacle and proclaimed the julbock ('Yule goat') a demon”.

The julbock was adapted accordingly, losing most of its sharp edges by the 1800s, when it was firmly established as the benevolent bearer of gifts on Julafton (Christmas Eve). Benevolent though it may have been, the julbock – or someone dressed up as it – could still be an intimidating figure, as the two children in Swedish writer Elsa Beskow's beloved Christmas book, Peter and Lotta's Christmas (Petter och Lottas Jul), demonstrate.


A julbock at the Skansen Christmas market in Stockholm in the 1940s. Photo: Bertil Norberg/TT

Perhaps not surprisingly, as the jultomte was being popularized in the late 1800s by the likes of Viktor Rydberg and Jenny Nyström, it was also gradually replacing the julbock as the symbol of Christmas giving.

But instead of being relegated to the shadows, the julbock was given a supporting role in the new narrative by the same artists perpetuating the image of the jultomte. In their iconic illustrations, Jenny Nyström, Elsa Beskow and Carl Larsson, among others, even managed to return to the pagan origins of the julbock by frequently featuring it pulling the sleigh of the jultomte.

Still, the shift from an active to a passive role in the celebration of Christmas undoubtedly contributed to consigning the julbock to its current status as little more than a decoration.

Each day until Christmas Eve, we're looking at the story behind one Swedish festive tradition. Find the rest of our #SwedishChristmas series HERE.

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CHRISTMAS

Sweden’s best Christmas markets for 2021

After many Christmas markets were cancelled last season, you may be wondering where you will be able to get this year's dose of Christmas cheer. Here are our suggestions for some of Sweden's best Christmas markets.

snow on stockholm's gamla stan christmas market
Stockholm Old Town's Christmas market may be one of Europe's oldest. Photo: Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se

SOUTHERN SWEDEN

1. Malmö Mitt Möllan

The trendy and multicultural area of Möllevången in Sweden’s third biggest city has become the spot for a special Christmas market for those looking for a modern and hipster-ish atmosphere. The Mitt Möllan traders’ association organises a market that promises art, culture, food and fashion. Busy that weekend? Malmö’s traditional annual Christmas market in Gustav Adolfs square, focusing on local products, is being held in three sessions, from December 9th-12th, 16th-19th and 20-23rd. 

When: December 2nd-5th

Tickets: Free

2. Kalmar Castle, Kalmar

This spectacular 800-year-old castle has established itself as one of the largest Christmas markets in Sweden. For four days, the whole building will be opened to the public and visitors get the chance to wander around in the historic decorated halls. Listen to Christmas and winter music, and walk around the castle and visit some of the about 120 craftsmen from all over Sweden who set up their stands and sell handmade items. 

When: November 25th-28th

Tickets: 90 kronor (free for under-12s)

Kalmar Castle in Småland provides a scenic location for one of Sweden’s largest Christmas markets. Photo: Emmy Jonsson/Scandinav Bildbyrå/imagebank.sweden.se

Katrinetorps Landeri, also known as Gourmetgården, is Malmö’s Christmas market for foodies. This market, situated in the house and gardens of Katrinetorp, built in the 1800s, will have a focus on Christmassy food such as glögg (mulled wine), as well as a horse and cart, antiques, a Lucia parade and dancing around the Christmas tree. They will also be offering their own handmade products in their deli.

When: December 3-5th

Tickets: 80 kronor for adults, free for children under 15

4. Jul på Bosjökloster, Höör

Christmas at Bosjökloster monastery is also back for 2021! As in previous years, this market will feature Christmas concerts in the church, as well as locally produced gifts and food for perfect Christmas gifts. Visitors will also be able to eat a traditional Swedish julbord, meet Santa, ride a horse and cart and “look for presents in the maze”. This market is taking place on the first weekend of advent, meaning you can start getting into the Christmas spirit as early as November!

When: November 26th-28th

Tickets: 100 kronor for adults, dropping to 50 kronor after 2pm on Sunday and free after 3pm on Sunday. Free for children under 16. Over-65s pay 80 kronor on Friday

CENTRAL SWEDEN

5. Liseberg theme park, Gothenburg

Sweden’s biggest amusement park, Gothenburg attraction Liseberg, lights up every year with millions of Christmas candles. A traditional Christmas Market and an old-fashioned Christmas market in different areas of the park offer everything from carol singing to pony carousel rides. Ice shows, Santa’s grotto, an ice skating rink and the park’s rabbits are sure to keep your little ones entertained. More information here.

When: Thursdays-Sundays between November 19th and December 30th. Check website for more details.

Tickets: Entrance from 95 kronor (free for children up to 110 centimetres) to 245 kronor for unlimited rides. The price varies depending on which day you visit as well as whether you want to go on the rides or not.

 

Gothenburg’s Liseberg theme park is host to a Christmas market complete with festive lights. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/Scanpix/TT

6. Skansen, Stockholm

Take the ferry over to Stockholm’s Djurgården island from Slussen and stroll over to Skansen, Europe’s biggest outdoor museum, which has organized its own Christmas market since 1903. It’s a great place to snap up some presents in the form of traditional Swedish arts and crafts, as well as having a feel of how Christmas was celebrated in the past.

When: Fridays-Sundays between November 26th and December 19th.

Tickets: 70 kronor for children aged 4-15, 160 kronor for adults and 140 kronor for concessions.

7. Old Town, Stockholm

Around 40 stands set up shop right in the middle of Stockholm’s Old Town ahead of the festive season, selling Swedish Christmas sweets, smoked reindeer, elk meat, a range of Swedish handicrafts and decorative arts, and much more. The setting alone is enough to get anyone into a romantic Christmas mood. This market might actually be one of the oldest in Europe, since the first Christmas market in the square was held as early as 1523 (although it started in its current format in 1837).

When: November 20th-December 23rd

Tickets: Free

8. Wadköping Christmas Market, Örebro

The Wadköping outdoor museum, which is an echo of what Örebro looked like centuries ago, organises a Christmas market full of the usual traditions: Christmas decorations, sausages, cheeses and arts and crafts. 2021’s Christmas market will also feature outdoor Christmas songs and pony riding.

When: November 21st and 28th, December 5th and 12th

Tickets: Free

NORTHERN SWEDEN

9. Gammelstads Kyrkstad, Luleå

Brave the cold (and it will be cold) for a Christmas market in the far north of Sweden. The Gammelstad Church Town is the country’s largest and best preserved church town, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is over 400 years old, and comprises of 405 cottages, six stables and a privy, sprawling around a large medieval stone church. The Christmas market takes place at the Hägnan open air museum, where around 80 exhibitors sell products from home-baked goods to arts and crafts. Visitors this year will be able to make their own candles, meet Santa and go on a candle-lit walking tour through the museum.

When: December 4th-5th

Tickets: 30 kronor

10. Jokkmokk Christmas Market, Jokkmokk

Jokkmokk is located in the north of Sweden, in the Arctic Circle. It is an important place for the Sami people, the only indigenous population in Scandinavia. It is famous for its winter market in February, which first took place in 1605. At their recently-established Christmas market, held in celebration of the winter solstice, visitors will find traditional Sami handicrafts – called duodji – and learn more about their history and culture.

When: December 11th-12th

Tickets: Free

Traditional Sami handicrafts – called guksi or kåsa – wooden drinking cups available at the Jokkmokk Christmas and winter markets. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/Scanpix/TT
 

11. Christmas Market at Nordanå, Skellefteå

Are you in Skellefteå this December? Pay a visit to the Christmas market at Nordanå, which started in 1975. It is particularly known for its arts and crafts, and in past years visitors have been able to buy handmade ceramics, knitted baby clothes, and tin thread jewellery.

When: December 5th

Tickets: Free

12. Christmas Market at Västerbotten Museum, Umeå

This Umeå museum dedicated to the region of Västerbotten organises its annual Christmas market again. It promises a candy shop, horse-drawn carriage rides, a bakehouse and more than 80 artisans selling locally produced food and quality wares. Hungry visitors can also learn about what Christmas dinner from this region may have looked like in the 1870s.

When: December 4th-5th

Tickets: Free

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