Swedish word of the day: julbock

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

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”.

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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?

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