crowd in sweden watches fireworks beside gavle yule goat sculpture
A crowd in Gavle, Sweden enjoys holiday festivities beneath an illuminated Julbock. | Mats Astrand/TT/Getty Images
A crowd in Gavle, Sweden enjoys holiday festivities beneath an illuminated Julbock. | Mats Astrand/TT/Getty Images

The Positively Metal Origins of Sweden’s Adorable Christmas Goats

In a jolly twist of events, a pair of Nordic monsters evolved into one cuddly holiday festival fixture. But is it really as sweet as it looks?

It’s a foggy December morning just east of Gothenburg, Sweden, and a man in the straw goat mask is about to take us from holly jolly to heebie-jeebies.

We just rolled onto the lakeside grounds of the sprawling 17th-century Nääs Slott Mansion, now a living museum, in search of Santa. It’s our first Christmas in Sweden, and our family is embarking on a scavenger hunt that promises to lead our six-year-old to a photo-op with the big man.

Through the dense gray fog, we spot our first Christmas character… and are instantly seized with dread. At the top of a gravel path, a humanoid shape emerges from a dense mist. It stands perfectly still, hands tucked into its flowing wool coat. Its face is obscured by an elongated straw mask crowned with braided horns, its eyes lifeless beneath tiny slits.

As we cautiously approach the entrance to the isolated historic site, a smiling teenager appears to greet us. Initially caught off guard by our English, she soon notices our nervous daughter (and our nervous selves) and cheerily introduces the shadowy figure perched up the walkway as the Julbock, a.k.a. the Christmas Goat. She assures us he’s super friendly, but when we mention we’re here to meet Santa, her smile fades.

“Don’t tell him that,” she warns. “They aren’t friends.”

toy julbock goat in hay
Small Julbocks fashioned out of straw are a Christmastime fixture in many Swedish homes. | Martin Whalborg/iStock/Getty Images

Sweden’s season of the goat

In Sweden, Christmas is truly magical. Warm spiced wine, or glogg, flows like water. Christmas markets send the smell of roasting nuts and warm pastries wafting into the atmosphere. The entire country slows down and nestles into a blanket of good vibes.

During the first of what would become our three Christmases spent in Sweden, most of the less-familiar customs felt sweet… if a little befuddling. On December 13’s St. Lucia Day, people don white gowns and crowns lined with lit candles before taking to the streets to sing. Christmas is actually celebrated on Christmas Eve, upon which the entire country stops, as it has since the late ‘50s, at precisely 3 pm to watch a nationally broadcast and, to be honest, culturally dated 1958 Donald Duck special only tangentially focused on Christmas. And for Christmas dinner, many Swedes feast on a melange of baked ham, sardine-packed au gratin, and pickled herring.

As foreigners, we knew full well not to bristle at our host country’s time-honored customs, and once we got into it, most left us whimsically curious and teeming with cheer. But the Julbock? That goat was giving us all seriously creepy Krampus vibes.

Yet as soon as we spotted him on that misty evening at Nääs Slott, we realized the Julbock had been hiding in plain sight everywhere we looked that holiday season—just not always in the form of the scary, True Detective-looking beast we’d encountered. The creature, depicted as a four-legged straw effigy wrapped with a cute lil’ red ribbon, proudly graced nearly every windowsill in town from November on. Wreathmakers created ornate, evergreen-hued goats through traditional weaving methods, and the ubiquitous souvenir shops in Gothenburg and Malmö were packed floor-to-ceiling with them.

We Americans all know Dasher, Prancer, Dancer, and Vixen, but for Swedes, the holidays belong to the Julbock. But unlike the friendly, red-nosed mammals we imagine vaulting across US skies, the Julbock’s origins are absolutely, undeniably metal.

historic photos of men in yule goat costumes
Scandinavians once practiced julebukking, a Christmas-tinged trick-or-treating custom that mixed candy and caroling with sheer terror. | Nils Keyland/Wikimedia

From Nordic monster to Christmas festival fixture

Most historians agree that the modern version of the Julbock can be traced back to Norse mythology, specifically to two goats named Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr—which translates to Tooth-Gnasher and Tooth-Grinder, if you’re looking for a good name for your speed-metal quartet.

Marvel fans will be quick to note that these legendary characters made a memorable cameo in Thor: Love & Thunder, but they’ve actually been around for millennia. They were the beings that purportedly pulled Thor’s chariot across the sky, yet they weren’t always rewarded for their feats of strength. In fact, both goats were regularly slaughtered and consumed by Thor, who would later bring them back to life whenever he needed a lift in an endless cycle of death and resurrection.

It’s worth noting that Norse Thor was a rotund, red-bearded warlord rather than a charming Australian beefcake played by Chris Hemsworth. And like their leader, Thor’s goats also morphed over time, merging into a singular being whose likeness varied drastically over the ensuing centuries. Throughout history, the Julbock has been interpreted as a mischievous scamp who roams around scaring unsuspecting Christians, as well as a benevolent gift-bearer akin to Santa, and, at its most extreme, the literal Devil in mortal form.

For a while, Scandinavians—particularly Norwegians—blurred the lines between Christmas and Halloween with julebukking, a trick-or-treating-caroling hybrid that saw goat-masked revelers going door to door in a sing-songy quest for candy. Some historians even report that early julebukkers carried with them a freshly severed goat head as they made their rounds.

But as Christianity gradually shoved paganism out of the global spotlight, the Julbock softened. And it doesn’t take a PhD in Mythological Studies to draw a direct line from the Norse death-bringer of yore soaring on a goat-drawn chariot to today’s famously jolly jetsetter on his reindeer-powered sleigh.

giant gavle goat in sweden
Each year, a massive Julbock scultpure takes center stage in Gavle, Sweden. | Theerasak Namkampa/Shutterstock

A kinder, gentler modern Julbock emerges

It’s hard to pinpoint when, exactly, the Julbock completed its transition from impish Christmas demon to holiday front door decor, but one thing is clear: The coastal town of Gävle, located two hours north of Stockholm, stands tall as the current keeper of the creature’s legacy.

Each year, communities throughout Sweden erect large-scale Julbock sculptures in their municipal squares, the same as they do with Midsommar poles when springtime rolls around. But ever since 1966, Gävle has gone all in on the Julbock, erecting a towering 43-foot version of the statue annually.

Paired with Gävle’s maximally Swedish, Baltic Sea-inspired aesthetic—the place is a fantasia of crimson boathouses, winding alleys, and verdant patches of green—the gigantic manmade goat has become a huge tourist attraction. At the beginning of each Advent, it’s unveiled to a cheering crowd. Not too long after, however, chances are good that same crowd will see the poor monument engulfed in flames.

burned gavle goat frame
An empty metal frame is often all that remains after the townsfolk have their way with Gavle's giant Julbock. | AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps once again owing to Sweden’s core metalness, the Gävle Julbock is particularly popular with arsonists, who, according to Reuters, have made it their mission to torch the city’s mascot at least 35 times since the tradition began, with the goat also falling victim to vehicular assault and other violence in the off years. Sometimes the goat-slayers are caught and prosecuted. Many vanish into the night, slipping off unpunished while embers rain down upon the town square and generations of security guards presumably lose their posts.

In a strangely full-circle move, the Gävle Goat is doomed to an endless cycle of slaughter and resurrection—just like its mythological predecessors, Toothgnasher and Toothgrinder.

yule goat and santa at sweden's naas slott mansion
Nääs Slott's Julbock, pictured here beside Santa, still haunts my holiday dreams. | Nääs Slott

The goats of Christmas past

The version of the Julbock I met on that Santa-fueled expedition to Nääs Slott—the one that still haunts my family’s memories every Christmas—was meant to educate visitors about the character’s forgotten lore. The sight was jarring at first, but as its cultural imprint was explained, the creature, too, began to soften. Yet upon learning about the Gävle Goat’s cruel, Groundhog Day-like fate at the hands of the generally non-confrontational Swedish people, I couldn’t help but think of the symbolic animal’s prior role as a holiday mischief-maker.

Maybe that dead-eyed, straw-masked, tooth-gnashing spirit of the pagan days never left. Perhaps the more sinister Julbock has grown tired of being reincarnated as an inoffensive keepsake, the red ribbon-wearing centerpiece placed on every Swedish dinner table each December. Maybe it longs to return to its roots as a hell-raising Norse demigod tearing through the sky and raining chaos on an unsuspecting populace. Or maybe it just wants to see the world burn—and if not the world, at least Gävle’s family-friendly spin on its dark and twisted history.

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Andy Kryza is a former travel editor at Thrillist.