Swedish word of the day: julbock

Here's the next word in The Local's Christmas-themed word of the day series, running from December 1st to Christmas Eve.

the word julbock on a black background beside a swedish flag
What do you think will happen to Gävle's julbock this year? Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Today’s Word of the Day is julbock, which can be translated literally as a “Yule buck”, but is more commonly referred to as a Christmas goat (“buck”, and bock, is a male goat). A julbock is made out of straw and decorated with red ribbons.

Sweden’s most famous julbock is Gävlebocken, a 13-metre-high giant straw goat in the Swedish east coast town of Gävle, who is famous around the world for being set on fire (which, just to be clear, is illegal!).

At the time of writing, 2021’s Gävlebock is still standing. If it survives the Christmas season, it will be another historic year for the goat, who has never survived for five years in a row before – it has burned down 30 times over the years, with the first Gävlebock seeing the light of day in 1966.

Since 1988, people in Sweden and across the world have been able to bet on the Gävlebock’s fate each year – both whether it will survive the Christmas season, as well as which date it will burn down.

It is estimated that 1,000 hours of labour go in to building the Gävlebock each year, not to mention the materials – the first Gävlebock in 1966 is estimated to have weighed over three tonnes.

But where does the tradition of a Christmas goat come from?

There are a number of theories behind the julbock‘s popularity. One suggests that the goat is a reference to thunder god Thor, who rode a chariot drawn by two goats, named Tanngrisnir – literally translating as “teeth thin”, or “one that has gaps between the teeth” in Old Norse – and Tanngnjóstr, “teeth grinder”.

Another theory suggests that the julbock’s origins are connected to the historical belief that the last sheaf of grain bundled in the yearly harvest had magical properties. This sheaf was often saved for Christmas and considered to embody the spirit of the harvest.

In the 1900s, the julbock became responsible across Scandinavia for the giving of gifts at Christmastime – in some areas of Finland, the julbock or joulupukki is still responsible for handing out gifts on Christmas Eve. In most parts of Scandinavia, however, gifts are now handed out by jultomten instead – a jolly old man wearing red and white who looks a lot like Santa – and the julbock has been relegated to nothing more than a Christmas decoration.

Example sentences:

Min bror och jag har slagit vad om när Gävlebocken kommer brinna ned.

My brother and I have placed bets on when the Gävle goat is going to burn down.

Ska vi inte köpa en julbock att ha som julpynt i år?

Should we buy a julbock for our Christmas decorations this year?

Need a good Christmas gift idea?

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to to read more about it – or join The Local as a member and get your copy for free.

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​​Swedish word of the day: konsensuskultur

Some would say today’s word describes the most quintessentially Swedish thing there is.

​​Swedish word of the day: konsensuskultur

Last week we covered the word möte, where we mentioned how Swedes are all about consensus. How so, you might ask. Well, some say that the obsession Swedes have with möten (‘meetings’) is emblematic of something called konsensuskultur, the ‘culture of consensus’, a phenomenon they claim might be the very spine of the Swedish spirit, if there is such a thing. 

According to these columnists, you can see it everywhere in Swedish society: in people wearing similar clothes on the streets (H&M etc), the constant möten at work, why the public debate on immigration has pushed voters toward the Sweden Democrats, why integration is failing, the leadership style of Swedish managers, the very idea of ‘lagom’, in every major shift in Swedish political history. Or in other words, basically in all the history and culture of Sweden.

Whether or not konsensuskultur truely has such massive reach, consensus is definitely sought after in Sweden (although one might argue that this is true of every healthy society). 

The idea of konsensuskultur also creates certain paradoxes. In 2015, at the height of the Syrian migration crisis, the Rabbi and author Dan Korn wrote that konsensuskultur was both the reason why Swedes were so refugee-friendly and simultaneously the reason why integration into Swedish society was such a failure.

Dan Korn argued this was not in fact a paradox, but instead the result of consensus on two different issues: one over welcoming refugees, and another over how to behave or not behave in Swedish society.

For immigrants living in Sweden, konsenskultur is not a word you will hear that often, but is is a phenomenon to keep in mind: 

When moving forward with group activities involving Swedes, it is often best to first have a discussion to reach some sort of consensus. 

Similarly, when analysing the twists and turns of the Swedish political landscape, it is always worth keeping an eye open for those moments when Sweden undergoes a paradigm shift, or in other words, finds a new consensus

A good way of using the word konsensuskultur, which might also start up an interesting conversation, is to ask a Swedish friend if they see Swedes as having a strong konsensuskultur

Example sentences:

Sverige sägs vara ett land med en stark konsensuskultur.

Sweden is said to be a country with a strong consensus culture.

Sara, tycker du att Sverige är ett land präglat av en stark konsensuskultur?

Sara, do you think Sweden is a country marked by a strong consensus culture?

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Bokus or Adlibris.