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#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

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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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For members


GUIDE: The Local’s gift guide of classic Swedish Christmas items

Swedish Christmas decorations are minimalist but 'mysig', with the lights appearing in every window around this time of year a welcoming sight to brighten up the darker months in the run-up to Christmas. Here's our guide to some Christmassy Swedish gifts.

GUIDE: The Local's gift guide of classic Swedish Christmas items

Christmas lights

Some characteristic Christmas lights you have no doubt spotted in the windows of houses and apartments where you live ar the julstärna or Christmas star and the adventsljusstake or Advent candlestick.

These Christmas decorations are available in countless different variations, both cheaper options at stores like Clas Ohlson and IKEA, and more expensive versions at design stores like Svenssons i Lammhult or Designtorget.

Other popular decorations include the änglaspel, angel chimes which rotate when candles are lit underneath, and the Julbock, a Christmas goat made of straw modelled after the famous Gävlebock, the 13-metre-high goat often set on fire by arsonists in the northern Swedish city of Gävle.

Also worth mentioning is the Jultomte, Christmas gnomes that are often mistaken as Santa. These can be found in almost all souvenir shops in many different sizes and are an unmistakably Swedish decoration found in every household.

Christmas snaps. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

Christmas drinks

Many would say that a Swedish Christmas celebration is not complete without snaps – traditionally served at all major holidays, it is essentially Swedish vodka with spices and herbs like aniseed, fennel and caraway seeds.

The ritual of drinking about 60ml of snaps with pickled herring and potatoes is accompanied by singing drinking songs called snapsvisor, which get increasingly more rowdy as the night goes on and as more alcohol is consumed.

Coupled with the other Christmas favourite, glögg (spiced wine), snaps is an essential part of the Swedish Christmas dining experience. You can make your own snaps at home by steeping some spices in vodka or unflavoured brännvin, or buy a bottle to gift to a snaps-loving friend or family member at the nearest Systembolaget. Here is The Local’s Swedish-style snaps recipe and more about its history and why it is so popular at Swedish holidays.

Knäck and pepparkakor. Photo: Jurek Holzer/SvD/TT

Christmas treats

A Swedish julfika (Christmas Fika) is incomplete without a few staples. The most classic are lussekatter (saffron buns), bright yellow buns most often formed into an S shape eaten around Christmas, pepparkakor, which are thin spiced gingerbread biscuits and julknäck, small caramel flavoured sweets.

You can serve these with warm glögg (alcoholic versions available at Systembolaget with low-alcohol or alcohol-free variants available at most supermarkets), or with some sort of Christmas tea or coffee – look for lussete (tea spiced with saffron, orange and sometimes, chilli), julte or julkaffe (tea or coffee with Christmas spices). Pick any of these depending on your preference, these treats are perfect for warming you up on a cosy winter afternoon.

Other classic Swedish favourite Christmas snacks and drinks include juleskum – soft candy with an admittedly unappetising name in the shape of Santa, and julmust Christmas soda. Julmust is so popular in Sweden that it outsells Coca Cola during the Christmas season every year.

Although Swedes might not be massively impressed if you gift them juleskum or pepparkakor as a Christmas present, they can be great gifts for friends and family back home if you’re celebrating Christmas outside of Sweden this year. Most if not all of these items are available at supermarkets, and you might even be able to pick them up in the airport or train station if you’re looking for a last-minute gift.