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The Story of the Yule Goat

Along with reindeer, think yule goat at the holidays; it’s been part of Scandinavian mid-winter celebrations for more than 1,000 years. Call him the julbock (Sweden), julebukk (Norway), or joulupuuki (Finland), he’s been part of Scandinavian mid-winter celebrations for more than one thousand years. In ancient midwinter celebrations a human dressed in goatskins and wearing a mask portrayed the Norse thunder god Thor‘s goats, Tanngrisnir (Gap-tooth) and Tanngnjóstr (Tooth-grinder), who pulled his chariot through the winter sky. In a traveling play called the “Juleoffer,” the man-goat “died” and came back to life, just as the winter sun does at Yule.

Early Christian fathers frowned on pagan revelry, so they proclaimed the Yule goat a demon. According to 17th-century Swedish records, this darker version of the Yule goat traveled the countryside demanding food, playing pranks, and frightening people on the night of December 25. He eventually become a benevolent being, giving gifts instead of demanding them. Still later, instead of giving presents he worked for those who brought them. Gnome-like, gift-giving Swedish tomten, Norwegian nissen, and Finnish tonttu all rode Yule goats or hitched them to their sleds.

“Go julebukk”, is a Norwegian custom whereby children dress in costume (goat, gnome, and Christmas elf costumes are especially appropriate) and appear on the doorsteps of family friends, where they sing Christmas carols in exchange for small treats. The Gävle goat, is a giant version of a traditional straw julbock erected in central Gävle, Sweden, every year since 1966. Approximately 40-feet tall and 23-feet long, weighing 13 tons. Since then, the Gävlebocken has been built every year starting on the first day of Advent, which marks the beginning of the Christmas celebrations in Scandinavia. Vandals/arsons have destroyed 38 the 66 goats constructed since 1966.

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