One of the holiday customs that my wife still just doesn’t get is the julbock, a goat made out of straw. When I tried to explain it to her for the first time it lead to quiet a bit of laughter. Let’s be honest, the julbock, or Yule Buck, is one of those weird little things that you just have to be of Scandinavian heritage to appreciate. Seriously, a straw goat? In truth, there’s a lot of history to this weird little object and most of it comes right out of heathen times.
While a lot of the heathen history is hidden, there is the obvious connection Thor and his goats, Toothgnasher and Toothgrinder. Then there are the various renditions of “Father Winter” that have become the well known Santa Claus. There is a lot of speculation as to the true identity of Santa, but we can be sure it goes back much further than the Kristjan saint Nickolas. The leading ideas is that Santa is either Odin or Thor. I tend to think that Santa is a combination of both that preserves some of our folklore and history. The chapter on Yule in volume 2 of Our Troth also has some interesting commentary on the origin of, and customs pertaining to, the julbock.
There was a Swedish folk custom that seems to directly relate to Snorri’s account of Thor killing his goats for a feast and then raising them from the dead the next day. This custom seems to have gone out of fashion after the mid-1900s. Sir James George Frazer described the performance as: “The actor, hidden by a coverlet made of skins and wearing a pair of formidable horns, is led into the room by two men, who make believe to slaughter him, while they sing verses referring to the mantles of various colours, red, blue, white, and yellow, which they laid on him, one after the other. At the conclusion of the song, the Yule Goat, after feigning death, jumps up and skips about to the amusement of the spectators.”
Goats are often portrayed in folklore and artwork as companions of tomten. Jenny Nystrom has done some of the most famous illustrations of this. There is also a famous painting by John Bauer called “Julbocken” that depicts the close relationship between the tomten and the yule goat.
There is also the Norwegian custom of Julebukking, where people wearing masks and costumes (Julebukkers) go door to door where neighbors who are receiving them attempt to identify who is under the disguise. The Julebukkers will often attempt to disguise their voices and body language. Offering Julebukkers treats and something to drink is considered customary. Once the Julebukkers have been identified and goodies are consumed, they move on to the next home. Another tradition requires that at least one person from the visited household join the band of Julebukkers and continue to the next household. This is a lot like the English tradition of Wassailing. For those who are so inclined, there is a lot of material here to work with for the development of some sort of ritual drama.
The modern version is a popular holiday decoration, and I think it would be a most appropriate ornament to hang on a Yule Tree. The city go Gävle, Sweden has a long history of really going for gusto and erects a giant julbock every year. This giant straw goat is doing very well for itself if it survives the holiday season, as it often gets set on fire. It’s even been stolen a couple of times, with one attempt using a helicopter to lift it off the ground!
When I was a child, I was taught that the julbock brought good luck to the house if it was given a place of honor for the holiday season. We often put one on the hearth or mantle. It seems to me that a julbock would make a great offering to the gods and would fit very well into the “burnt offerings” category. It could also be related to the bonfires set during Yule in this way. One year, I participated in a Yuletide ritual burning of a julbock where we all wrote messages to the gods, secured them under the ribbon wrapping, and then burnt the julbock at sunrise as an offering to Sunna.
Not all of the folklore regarding the julbock is happy and bright. Some folk tales mention fatal encounters with one, a well known one having to do with a farm girl dancing alone with one in a barn at night. Certain “morality tale” thoughts come to mind about this story. I can’t help but wonder if the darker imagery of the julbock is related to the German mythical creature Krampus, who travels with Santa and punishes naughty children. There are similar descriptions, even if the Krampus is a bit more demonic looking.